Do Public Domain Works Provide a Good Business Opportunity?

Do Public Domain Works Provide a Good Business Opportunity?

When it comes to public domain works, there are actually quite a number of business ideas that you can try out to start a niche business.  First of all, I wanted to discuss briefly what public domain works are, and then I will cover a few ideas that I have heard of and am interested in.

First, “Public domain works” are simply items no longer covered by intellectual property rights anymore.  This simply means that the original creator, writer, inventor, or other person no longer has sole control over the work – the public is allowed to use that work freely.  For example, music in the public domain is music that either has an expired copyright (or never had a copyright) or which all the rights to that music have expired over time.  Many classical pieces of music such as the work of Beethoven and others are in the “public domain”.  This means you can print, copy, and sell copies of Beethoven’s music without paying a royalty to anyone.

Items that are in the public domain might include (but is certainly not limited to) items such as: music, books, movies, pictures, software, patents, and other works. There really is a HUGE body of work that it is the public domain for people such as you and I to download, read, watch, or otherwise use how we want.

Three Ideas to Monetize Public Domain Works

So, how do you actually make money with public domain works?  Well, here are a few ideas that I have read about.

  • Idea #1 – Use public domain pictures to create and sell mugs, t-shirts, posters, stationary, and other items on websites such as CafePress.com and Zazzle.com.

This is an idea I read about on a forum right here – (not sure if his $5,000/week income he mentions is realistic, but whatever).  The thing with sites like CafePress.com and Zazzle.com is that they actually ONLY create the mug or tshirts for you IF they sell.  In other words, you don’t pay anything to create a listing (there may be some variations here) – you only pay a selling fee.  These services print and ship on demand the products you list.

So, in other words, you simply upload a public domain picture, like this one of a 1938 Chevrolet Sedan; then you pick one of the generic mugs or tshirts that CafePress.com or Zazzle.com has available.  Then you set you selling price and you’re done!  If someone buys it, the website creates the product, ships it, and you make the difference between your selling price and the fee.

The only way to succeed big with this idea would to find a special niche that’s not overcrowded and then to create TONS of products. If you could develop a script/software to automatically create and post products to these sites, you could really get some serious stuff done…just a thought.

Many Hollywood films, cartoons, and ALL government created film is in the public domain.  There are lots of websites that exist which allow you to download some of these public films for free.  There are others which give you access to a huge body of work for very little money as well.

The idea would simply be to find a niche like old cartoons for example, lots of the 1940′s Bugs Bunny cartoons have expired copyrights.  Once you get a copy of these cartoons, just burn them onto a DVD and list them for sale on Amazon, eBay, or create your own site (that of course ranks well for a keyword people are actually searching for).  Or you could simply have a website that sells the downloads, rather than a DVD copy.  Again, this idea would take a unique angle and the ability to appeal to a passionate audience; however, there really are lots of possibilities here.

  • Idea #3 – Repackage and sell old books in digital format on Amazon or on your own site.

There are a ton of “classic” works that are freely available to the public without any copyrights.  You can download, share, or sell many of these works.  Of course you need to do your research on each of these.  In addition, lots of recipes are publicly available.  I have read about one author, Ron Douglas, who has repackaged public domain recipes before and resold the ebooks on Amazon.com and has done VERY well.  I don’t know which of his books have “borrowed” recipes and which of his books have original ones, but either way, you get the idea.

With the right amount of uniqueness, pre-sell, and overall marketing, you could actually do pretty well selling your public domain works in a repackaged format.

Your Thoughts?

So, what do you think?  Am I just crazy for either considering pursuing such an idea, or do you think its worth my time?  Of course, I would need to put a lot of effort into narrowing down the idea and finding the right niche; however, overall, I see some real possibilities here.

Let me know your thoughts below!  And remember, if you have a better idea that you would like to see me try submit your business idea right here.


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29 Comments for this entry

  1. Patric says:

    Hey Spencer!

    The cafepress idea is a good one. I have worked with a few public domain projects in the past and there is some good money to be made there.

    Here is an idea for you. Collect as many public domain images that you can find and throw them into a database and sell the images for websites etc. Think something along the lines of istockphoto. You can charge less and get a decent amount of traffic from google image search if you seo the image tags/pages properly.

    • Spencer says:

      Hey Patric, great idea! In fact, I have noticed that some images on my various niche sites actually bring in a decent amount of traffic. I imagine with a huge database of SEO friendly images, someone could actually do pretty well. Even if you didn’t charge for the images (made them free to download), you could still make a decent amount with adsense or other ads on the site. The CTR would not be very good, but it would definitely make something…you’ve got my head full of different ideas now…thanks Patric!

      • Patric says:

        Yep. free downloads would work as well. Another option for monetization would be selling licensed photos on the pages. For instance, check out everystockphoto, they offer free image downloads, but on the side of the page they have links to related premium images which is part of an affiliate program through fotolia.

        I would imagine that the conversion rate is pretty good. If you are showing some “ok” free images of doctors, but on the side of the page have some really nice “ready to use” images that people could purchase for a few bucks, it wouldn’t be too difficult to make that sale.

        On a completely different topic, you can also use these public domain images for link building. For instance, if you run a medical site, grab a bunch of doctor/nurse images and blow them up into screensavers. Upload them to a file on your medical site with keywords in the image name. Now distribute these free screensavers to the thousands of screensaver directories online and most of them will link to the source/your site, with the proper keyword image text, thus bringing in thousands of links and you can rinse and repeat as many times as you want. :)

        Have fun!

  2. Stephen says:

    Hi Spencer.

    I am not a big fan of creating public domain books. I know people say you can make money at it, but when I looked at it the public domain books available were VERY dated and I wouldn’t feel happy selling them, even if they were repackaged.

    Steve.

    • Spencer says:

      Stephen – then I would recommend going a different direction if you ever tackled public domain works. There is SO much more than books.

    • Del Williams says:

      You can update the PD books. Also, go with rare books not the ones everyone is self publishing. I have republished approx 200 books and now changing it a bit because you want the copyright which you don’t get if you publish as is.

    • Jack says:

      Del is right. The more you change/add to the content, the more commercially suitable those products will be.

      Also, pay attention to other factors, such as the author’s name. There are some very popular authors in the public domain, including Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley (although he would be slightly more popular in the Indiana region than in the rest of the world), O. Henry, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.

      Another thing I might suggest is if you find books that are not “popular”, but which, if pushed to the right audience, are very marketable. There are thousands upon thousands of love stories, detective stories, horror stories, etc. that have simply been forgotten, and therefore provide a lucrative opportunity for their publisher/s once rediscovered. In other words, people just aren’t aware that many of these books even exist, and once they know it, they’ll like them. This is a bit more challenging than publishing more well-known works, because you have to do the promotional leg-work to make sure these books get rediscovered. It’s a little bit like writing your own book. Nobody will know, but you have to bring it to their attention.

      Hope this helps.

  3. Richard says:

    Repackage the old books and sell on amazon for the Kindle.

  4. Boris C. says:

    So if rights to Bugs Bunny are expired, what if i decide to sell Bugs Bunny videos downloads or DVDs on my own domain and “bugsbunny” would be included within domain?

    Does that expiration of rights include domains? I think not, because WB owns Bugs Bunny franchise.

    • Spencer says:

      Correct. Obviously you would have to do your own research on what you can legally do or not do for every public domain work.

  5. Tipjar says:

    Hey Spencer, what theme are you using for this site, or is it a custom theme? Site looks great man!

  6. TM Allen says:

    The idea is great I think according to the post on warrior forum. The Zazzle idea is the best I think I can work with

  7. C says:

    Hi Spencer

    Thanks for this post. I think there’s alot of opportunities with PD works. We just need to think outside of the box and have some imagination.

    The challenge I have is more on finding books that have not have been renewed during the period of 1923 – 1963. Any suggestions?

    Regards

    • Spencer says:

      C – I agree that there probably are a lot of opportunities here. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to finding book titles as you mentioned. Does anyone else have any ideas? If this is the idea I decide to pursue, I will dig into this much more; but for now I really don’t know. Anyone else?

  8. Hey guy;

    I read your thoughts on “Public Domain Works” and my thoughts are that you have to be very passionate about a specific market or know what use to, and still does interest people enough that they’d want to purchase a thing in a large quantity. I mean, old movies, recipes, and the like; how much could you sell to make the amount of money that would interest you and or make it worth your while? He was interested in cooking and recipes…..you’ve already sold and purchased books online, etc. I’m not sure if this is your second big effort to go with maybe somewhere way down the line after you have generated the income that you deserve. But the smart money, and my money is on the “Mobil Phone Apps.” for your next initiative!!!!

  9. Dan says:

    Hey Spencer,

    I didn’t vote for this idea, but it seems the majority of folks like it. So, I snooped around on Google and found this $97 eBook that Google indexed a link to:
    URL Deleted.
    It’s 204 pages of gold regarding Public Domain.

    Dan

    • Spencer says:

      Hey Dan – I don’t know if I’m comfortable having a link to a product that requires people to pay to have access to on my site – so I’m deleting the URL. I appreciate the tenacity though!

  10. Dan says:

    For that matter…if you do a search on the Big G of:

    filetype:pdf +Tony laidig

    You will find close to 600 pages of stuff written by Tony that is golden.

    Danj

  11. Dave Starr says:

    It’s not only US government films that are in the public domain. Thousands and thousands of government manuals, regulations and information pamphlets are out the, mainly in paper … or on isolated, disjoint government websites with no means of indexing and consolidating the information. A potential goldmine for a person with an area of expertise who wanted to consolidate, index and sell monthly access to lawyers, researchers and librarians in specialized fields.

    Or consider consolidating a whole series of manuals into a content management system … like WordPress … and then selling, via print on demand service, a DVD that the buyer simply plugs into his computer and gets a live, off-line version of WordPress for his reading and researching enjoyment.

    Information is power ;-)

    • Spencer says:

      Great tips Dave!

      • Dave Starr says:

        Thanks, Spencer. I think there’s a lot of power in thinking of uses for WordPress in other than on-line blogging situations.

        After all, if you start a blog, you have to be way better than some really good people before you even start to become noticed … but when you publish specialized desktop reference tools into specialty markets with clients that pay … like lawyers, you can pretty much start out being the “big frog in the puddle”, right from day one.

        There are a number of “born and ship on demand” DVD services, very similar to the “print on demand” book (and T-shirt ;-) ) services.

      • Galyna says:

        Hey Spencer! Did you get into public domain work business?
        If so, how did it go?

  12. bill says:

    Hi, can one actually take a PD source and re-purpose (re-write, re-score, use the story/theme) and make it their own or does one have to use the PD original in its full context and keep the title, character names, etc?

    • Fred says:

      If the PD book has trademarked names, you are restricted from re-purposing. A perfect example is the Sherlock Holmes stories. A group holds the trademark for Sherlock Holmes, so if you re-write a Holmes book and keep using the Holmes character, you would need to get permission from the trademark holder.

  13. AD says:

    Hey Spencer,
    So if I find an ebook that is in the public domain can I upload the ebook on my website and sell the download provided I give credit to the author?

  14. Pete Souk says:

    Hi All,

    Dear Spencer and All, where one can find these public domains things? Please provide me with any websites or any means.
    Thanks!

    Pete

  15. Fred says:

    I use public domain pictures for my blog. I like to have a picture for as many of my blogs as I can, so I go to wikipedia, type in what my blog is about, scroll down and click on the various pictures. If it says CC Some Rights Reserved, I skip it. I only copy the ones that have the grey C with the line through it and says: “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.”

    Sometimes it takes a little searching and scrolling to find one (e.g. chocolate) but I can usually find some picture that will work that is in the PD.

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