Is there anything to stop someone from setting, and contracting to print, and then selling, public domain works?
So far as I understand copyright law, no. But the person doing do can’t assert copyright claim over the work, so there’s nothing to stop his/her potential customers from “going to the source” as it were.
Surely you have noticed that many public domain classics are never out of print. Just about every publishing company on the planet has a Shakespeare collection, for example.
If the work is truly in the public domain, you can do as you please with it. You can’t copyright it, of course. Once copyright’s expired, it’s expired forever.
So hop on over to Project Gutenberg and go to town. Be a good netizen and contribute something, though.
Although the public domain content isn’t protected, other aspects of the printed text may be. This includes any introductions, afterwords, footnotes, or glossaries attached to the edition. All my editions of Shakespeare are permeated with copyrighted stuff like this. I don’t know if they’re still around, but Airmont books used to publish inexpensive paperback editions that always had a copyrighted introduction.
Of course, translations, unless themselves old and out of copyright, are protected until they get old, too.
Nothing put out by the government is copyrighted, and many people have put out editions of government texts and charged for them. This was easier to do in the old days before everything was available on the Net. And in many ways more convenient for the public.
Since no one else has included it, you should not claim that the work is yours.
As long as you include the original authorship information, you are welcome to publish, distribute, and even sell documents in the public domain.
However, you should be aware that US Copyright law assumes that anything published in the last 75 years is copyright protected, unless there is a statement otherwise. The lack of the copyright symbol or notification is not proof that the work is not copyrighted. This is especially relevant for material published in e-mail or to websites, as well as music, plays, and videos, where amateurs publish their own original material but do not include copyright information at all.
But one thing to remember is that while the original text may be public domain, a particular translation may still be protected by copyright.
Also remember that public domain applies only to the United States. Different nations have different copyright laws that bar distribution to other countries. For example, the works of Victor Hugo are many many years in the public domain here, but in France his descendants still receive royalties from them and this created a big stink when Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame was released internationally. There’s also a lawsuit between a professor and James Joyce’s estate due to differences of opinion in fair use. (Ulysses was published in 1922 and by U.S. copyright law is in public domain.)
Not quite true. The change in the law that said a copyright notice was no longer required took effect on March 1, 1989. Before then, the lack of a notice could put a work into the public domain.
There is a presumption that any print work published after January 1, 1923 is in copyright unless proven otherwise, however. Proven otherwise could mean that it was not renewed at the proper time or that a notice was not included. You would need to show that you did the search at the Library of Congress or some equivalent before claiming that anything published after 1922 lost its copyright status.
It’s not entirely clear that it is. From “Copyright Protectionism and Its Discontents: The Case of James Joyce’s Ulysses in America”, by Robert Spoo, an intellectual property lawyer, in The Yale Law Journal, 108.3 (1998): 633-67:
The 1922 Paris first edition is in the public domain in the U.S., but that is a typo-ridden edition, and not considered authoritative. The first U.S. edition, by Random House in 1934, is still under copyright.