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Could I Re-Write a Very Old Book and Publish It?

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 16 Jul 2016 | comments*Discuss
 
Book Copyright Plagiarism Work Publish

Q.

I have found a very old non-fiction book. Can I re-write this book using different words and settings and have it published eventually?

(K.H, 1 March 2009)

A.

You’re getting into a couple of interesting, and very tricky, legal areas with this idea, however devilish and cunning it might seem. Almost certainly, you’re not the first to have come up with a plan like this, but before you think of executing it, there are some things you need to be aware of.

The first is copyright law. It’s a legal labyrinth, but in essence it boils down to the fact that the copyright on a work remains with the author, or his successors, until 70 years after his death. However, if the work was first published outside the UK, then it becomes even more complex.

So, if you want to pursue your plan, you first need to know when the writer died, and do your research to ascertain where the book was first published and what particular copyright laws apply to it – which could involve consulting a specialist lawyer.

Even if everything is fine, that still doesn’t give you the moral right to plunder the original work, which brings us into the issue of plagiarism. What is plagiarism? In essence, it’s copying. It doesn’t have to be using the same words, it can be taking the same idea, stealing it in effect, which is really what you’re proposing.

For all that, plagiarism isn’t a criminal offence; you can’t be prosecuted by the law for it. Instead, if a piece is in copyright, you could be taken to civil court by the copyright holder.

Of course, if you’ve determined that the book you want to use for your idea is out of copyright, then technically you’re legally free, although ethically it’s still stealing.

Rather than simply rewriting the book, have you considered using it as an inspiration for an original work? It leaves you in a much better position morally (especially if you credit the original work for the inspiration) and leaves you free to develop the book as you wish, without slavishly following something else. It will give you a freer rein for your own creativity - even with non-fiction - and you can add original research.

If you do decide to simply rewrite, then submit to a publisher, you also run the risk of someone saying it reminds them of the original work, especially if the original is well-known. That would definitely lessen your chances of being published. It’s much better to be honest in your dealings.

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Hello...I wrote a children's book a few years ago for an independant publisher (it's a long story but it was digital publishing and I was supposed to work on follow-up apps and web sites etc which never saw the day because they didn't pay me!). The 'hard copy' is only available on Amazon, not in book shops and I had to do my own publicity. It will never be 'out of print' due to the nature of POD publishing today (and I see it costs about £1 000 now!!) I loved writing this book and became very fond of the characters. A couple of years ago, I asked the publisher if I could reuse the characters in a new book. He said there was no problem as long as the plot was different. So, my question is this: if I use the same characters and a different plot but keep some of the funnier incidents...that is, copy chapters/paragraphs etc with some modifications to tie in with the new plot...would I be guilty of self-plagiarism? If I ever find a publisher for this new book (I can dream) or enter it into a competition, would it be considered as 'previously published'? I just feel I worked so hard for nothing and I'm very frustrated! Thank you for your advice. Gill
Gill - 16-Jul-16 @ 7:26 PM
Hello...I wrote a children's book a few years ago for an independant publisher (it's a long story but it was digital publishing and I was supposed to work on follow-up apps and web sites etc which never saw the day because they didn't pay me!). The 'hard copy' is only available on Amazon, not in book shops and I had to do my own publicity. It will never be 'out of print' due to the nature of POD publishing today (and I see it costs about £1 000 now!!) I loved writing this book and became very fond of the characters. A couple of years ago, I asked the publisher if I could reuse the characters in a new book. He said there was no problem as long as the plot was different. So, my question is this: if I use the same characters and a different plot but keep some of the funnier incidents...that is, copy chapters/paragraphs etc with some modifications to tie in with the new plot...would I be guilty of self-plagiarism? If I ever find a publisher for this new book (I can dream) or enter it into a competition, would it be considered as 'previously published'? I just feel I worked so hard for nothing and I'm very frustrated! Thank you for your advice. Gill
Gill - 16-Jul-16 @ 4:49 PM
Hello...I wrote a children's book a few years ago for an independant publisher (it's a long story but it was digital publishing and I was supposed to work on follow-up apps and web sites etc which never saw the day because they didn't pay me!). The 'hard copy' is only available on Amazon, not in book shops and I had to do my own publicity. It will never be 'out of print' due to the nature of POD publishing today (and I see it costs about £1 000 now!!) I loved writing this book and became very fond of the characters. A couple of years ago, I asked the publisher if I could reuse the characters in a new book. He said there was no problem as long as the plot was different. So, my question is this: if I use the same characters and a different plot but keep some of the funnier incidents...that is, copy chapters/paragraphs etc with some modifications to tie in with the new plot...would I be guilty of self-plagiarism? If I ever find a publisher for this new book (I can dream) or enter it into a competition, would it be considered as 'previously published'? I just feel I worked so hard for nothing and I'm very frustrated! Thank you for your advice. Gill
Gill - 16-Jul-16 @ 2:40 PM
What If I found a book and I wanted to 're-write it.what would I do?It would have all the basics of the original book. Is that legal???
D - 2-Jun-16 @ 11:00 PM
Arty - Your Question:
I'm an illustrator and was curious about copyright laws under old fairy tales such as "the ugly duckling", "the little mermaid", "snow white" etc. I wanted to essentially rewrite, illustrate and potentially have them published. Is that at all possible? I know Hans Christian Andersen was the writer of "the ugly duckling" but he's been long gone.

Our Response:
As specified in the article, in the UK copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author. However, you still have to be careful as Danish laws may be different. I can't really add to the article advice except to say do your research and make sure you are legally secure as it may cost you a lot more in copywright legal fees as you could ever hope to make from your book.That's why most people keep clear.
ExploreWriting - 17-May-16 @ 2:35 PM
I'm an illustrator and was curious about copyright laws under old fairy tales such as "the ugly duckling", "the little mermaid", "snow white" etc. I wanted to essentially rewrite, illustrate and potentially have them published. Is that at all possible? I know Hans Christian Andersen was the writer of "the ugly duckling" but he's been long gone.
Arty - 16-May-16 @ 9:23 PM
@Chris - If you want to use a passage from a book, then you would need to make reference to the original author. To pick it up and transfer it without reference means you may be prosecuted for plagarising copy. It's always best to be on the safe side and acknowledge the original author.
Hal - 17-Mar-16 @ 1:50 PM
There was a book that was published back in the 80s, however, the author is still alive as far as I know. I don't want to rewrite the story, just to write in a few sentences from the original into the sequel, in which I'm creating. Is that illegal, or do I need to follow certain laws when writing it?
Niki - 17-Mar-16 @ 2:02 AM
This is an interesting theme for discussion. Those old books could be freshioned up with modern-day dialog and description, rather than being condemned to oblivion by their stale rendering. But, the question is, is it legal? I think so, and I also think it's being done all the time. I'd like some feed back on this subject. Thank you.
Cayuqui - 20-Nov-15 @ 5:05 AM
Hi, I write erotica for a living, something I was hoping to pursue has been rewriting classic literature with an erotic twist. An example of this would be, I rewrote "The Picture of Dorian Grey" but added a lot of very explicit sex scenes. Maybe Oscar Wilde would be rolling over in his grave maybe he would love it, I don't really care what I do care about are copyright lawsuits that as a struggling writer I cannot afford. Do you know if publishing a work online with the same exact plot of "The Picture of Dorian Grey" but which is nonetheless an original work written entirely by me and with a lot of added sex scenes would constitute plagiarism. Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.
Gracie Lacewood - 1-Jun-15 @ 8:39 PM
Hi. re: the re-writing of a public domain fiction book. If I re write a book following the original story line but bringing it up to modern reading by changing old Victorian words and phrases and removing whole sections from the original would that be seen as morally wrong. If so how about all the grimms books, dickens etc which get re written and published all the time? Your comments would be appreciated - Thanks
leggyweb - 11-Jun-13 @ 1:55 PM
I have a question I have searched everywhere for the awnser and nobody has ever heard of this IDEA.can you make a movie into a book.i found this old movie and its amazing it was not a book made into a movie just a movie I would like to write it into a book. With major differences but the plot is still the same.has it been done. If not can I do it I'm only 13 but I feel up to doing this and making it an incredible book.for everybody says the book as always better than the movie.
Joanna - 5-Jun-13 @ 7:03 PM
I have this old children's anthology that was my grandmother's. It is full of all these great children's fairy tales that are more or less lost because they are never told anymore. Can I take these stories and republish them so that they get back out there? What's all the legal stuff on it?
Matt - 6-Mar-13 @ 4:17 AM
Hi, I've got a question which resembles the one above. I was wondering if I could actually use an old book, take the same characters, but write a different story. For you to get a really rough idea : suppose that person A hates person B and kills B in the original story. Would it be possible to write a version of what would have happened if A hadn't killed B ? Would it just have the same conditions as the above ? I hope you can help me. Anyway, I wanted to add that your website is really helpful too ! Kind regards, Rachel
Rachel - 22-Jan-13 @ 4:33 PM
I was under the impression you were referring to an author's own old book. I hate my first book with a passion and disliked the illustrations my publisher insisted on and want to rewrite it as a prequel to one of my current series and illustrate it myself the posting on amazon wasn't that clear. Maybe you can post tips on that in a future post regards claudia
I hate nicknames - 11-Oct-11 @ 9:53 AM
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