How to Know If Recording an Audiobook is Illegal or Not

If you are not the copyright owner, holder, or have a license to create a derivative work, recording an audiobook is illegal. The alternatives are: using works that are Common Creative licensed, unlicensed works that can be considered “Fair Use” under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, or private domain works.

In this article, I present some aspects that need to be clear before deciding to record an audiobook:

  • Can I record an audiobook if I’m not the author or copyright holder?
  • What is Copyright Owner, Copyright Holder, and License Holder? 
  • Difference between original work and derivative work
  • How to know if a book is still under copyright
  • How to request permission from the copyright holder
  • Books that can be recorded without copyright infringement
    • Creative Commons License
    • Books created before 1923
    • Books that didn’t have their copyright renewed: 1923 to 1964
  • Where to find public domain books: 
    • Internet Archives
    • Standard Ebooks
    • Project Gutenberg

Can I Record an Audiobook if I’m Not the Author or Copyright Holder?

This picture shows a condenser mic in shock-mount support –

In the US you can do it if you select a work that was copyrighted before 1923, even if the copyright was renewed by that time. According to this feature, the work is in the public domain. 

You can also choose a work under a Creative Commons license, making sure that you comply with all of its requirements (see more details in the Creative Commons License subheading).

That said, before making any decision, you should set aside some time, avoid any rush, and check the corresponding governing party: Better safe than sorry!

Recording unlicensed works can be possible if you are an educator and can demonstrate that:

  1. The audiobook you want to create has non-commercial purposes
  2. It won’t be distributed on social media, YouTube, music or podcast platforms, or any other type of website, as well as copied on USB flash drives, portable hard drives, CDs, DVDs, or any other kind of storage device
  3. The school or institution cannot get any direct or indirect profit from making this recording available to any kind of audience
  4. The recording will be hosted on an internal education platform like Moodle, BlackBoard, or similar ones, where only a restricted number of users can have access to it online; avoid making it available to download; make sure that the audience knows the things that cannot be done with it (number 2)
  5. Make sure the recording covers less than 10% of the original work; avoid picking the essential core parts of the story, as it can be disregarded as Fair Use

See more details at 

What is Copyright Owner, Copyright Holder, and License Holder? 

A copyright owner or holder is basically the person or company that has ownership and control of any of the exclusive rights of the work:

“Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures, and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;

(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of digital audio transmission.” 

A license holder is a person or company that has been granted permission to copy or change the original work. Therefore, before recording an audiobook, the producer or person responsible for it needs to hold a valid license from the copyright holder, mainly to “prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.”

The following three books are also excellent sources to get into all the details of copyright law:

Difference Between Original Work and Derivative Work

An audiobook is a derivative work based on an existing physical book or ebook, which is the original work.

Audiobooks can also be produced in one of these two versions:

  • Abridged: it’s an adaptation that presents the best and most relevant content of every chapter to keep the essence of the original work.

It’s done by the author or the person designated by the copyright holder or license holder. It also can be the best option when there is a risk that the original length of the book (the unabridged version) could potentially “bore” the listener. 

  • Unabridged: it’s the original work being narrated by a voice narrator or actor. It’s a good option when the book itself is long enough to capture the listener’s attention from the beginning to the end. 

“As in any other physical book, an audiobook is presented and recorded by chapters, and definitely the quality of the narration can have a huge impact on its success.” (How Does an Audiobook Work? Benefits, formats, and opportunities).

How to Know If a Book Is Still Under Copyright

The following options can help you find out if the book you would like to record is copyright-free at the moment of search. They also apply to check if a copyright has been renewed

  • If the work you are interested in was copyrighted before 1923, it has already achieved the 95 years period stated by the copyright law and it is public domain. You don’t need further confirmation of that fact.
  • On both physical books and ebooks, you will find the information related to the date the copyright was first obtained and the latest renewals on the left page, before or after the title page.
  • You can also check directly online at the Copyright Catalogue , for works from 1978 to the present.
  • Copyrighted works registered before 1978 can only be checked directly in the reading room of the Copyright Public Records.  

How to Request Permission From the Copyright Holder

Books that have been successful for many decades will surely have a current copyright holder. In most cases, those holders will rely on well-established audiobook production companies or publishing houses that provide that service.

Sometimes very good works were really famous at the time they were published but they are not known to today’s audiences. 

If that is the case, and you think you may have the chance to produce and market an appealing audiobook version of it, Google the title of the book, and try to get the contact information of the publishing house(s).

You can also try to find the author on social media and send him/her a direct message. Make sure your proposal is concise and provide evidence that you are able to create a professional quality product. 

Sometimes this strategy works better than relying on the publishing house to release the author’s contact details.

Also, make sure the financial arrangement you may achieve with the copyright holder is satisfactory for both parties.

Books That Can Be Recorded Without Copyright Infringement

Creative Commons Licenses

The purpose of Creative Commons is to enable any person or institution to use creative works from authors according to copyright law, but only in some cases, the reuser can get a commercial benefit from it.

That means that a copyright owner or holder is free to continue getting financial profit from his/her creation and its derivative works, as well as from providing specific licenses to other people so they can get a commercial profit too.

In the case of Creative Commons, the copyright holder may grant or not permission to others to use it or create new material from it.

It is mandatory for the reuser of a Creative Commons licensed work to give attribution to the author in all the six options of license. Only three of them allow commercial use: (See all the details at

License typeAttribution to the creatorAdaptationsCommercial Use
CC BYObligatoryYesYes
CC BY-SAObligatoryYesYes
“The reuser must license the modified material under identical terms.” 
CC BY-NCObligatoryYesNo
CC BY-NC-SAObligatoryYesNo
“The reuser must license the modified material under identical terms.” 
CC BY-NDObligatoryNoYes
CC BY-NC-NDObligatoryNoNo
This table shows a quick view of the six license types

Books copyrighted after 1923

A very easy way to know if you can use a book to record an audiobook is to take the current year and subtract the year the book was first copyrighted (2021 – 1925 = 96).

Take into account that the copyright law allows the 95th year to be completed until the end of the current year. That means that a book copyrighted on February 28th, 1925 can be in the public domain until the end of the additional 10 months.

The table below shows an example of doing this calculation for the past four years: 

Year of the first copyrightAre they public domain in 2021?
1923Yes – 98 years
1924Yes – 97 years
1925Yes – 96 years
1926Yes – 95 years (until  December 31st, 2021)
This table shows an example of what books have already completed the 95 years’ copyright period

Books that didn’t have their copyright renewed: 1923 to 1964

The copyright law by that time provided a period of 28 more years for each work that was renewed.

It’s thought that about 75% of the books that were not renewed during that period of time are public domain.

This brings up an opportunity to have access to great titles that nobody may have thought were never renewed.

Where To Find Public Domain Books

The following three websites are non-profit organizations that have been collecting and formatting many public domain books, in addition to other types of works.

They have carried out all the steps to confirm that these works are currently copyright-free and have made them available in the most common formats for ebook readers, tablets, and computers.

The Internet Archive (

They began in 1996 by archiving newspapers. Its mission is “To provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.”

Their current archive is made by:

Web pagesBooks and textsAudio recordingsVideosImagesSoftware
475 billion28 million14 million6 million3.5 million580,000
Live concerts:
Television News programs:
2 million
This table shows the number of titles in each medium, available at

It’s definitely a massive collection of all kinds of work. Parent guidance is necessary as a few adult content items are available in several categories of books. 

You’re free to read, listen or watch online or download the file in about 10 different formats for books.

  • Available formats for books: ABBYY, Daisy, Epub, full text, Kindle, Pdf, Pdf with text, single page processed JP2 zip, torrent.

Standard Ebooks (

It’s a non-profit project that provides high-quality formatting that rivals commercially produced ebooks. All their work is cost and copyright-free and includes a cover image and some illustrations.

Their ebooks are available in the following formats:

  • Compatible epub: for all devices except Kindles and Kobos
  • AZW3: for Amazon’s Kindle devices and apps
  • Kepub: for Kobo devices and apps
  • Advance epub: the most recent format not yet suitable for general use

Although Standard Ebooks states that this format is not yet suitable for general use, I did get to manage using an app for Windows 10, macOS, and Linux called Thorium Reader; after downloading a book, I got a window showing a conflict with the Javascript but after closing it, the app ran perfectly well.

Each ebook is neat and aesthetic. A real pleasure. The available titles and significantly fewer, in contrast with the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg (

It was Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutemberg and inventor of the ebook in 1971, who brought the idea of creating a digital version of a physical book, being one of the main sources of public domain books.

Similarly to Standard Ebooks, their ebooks are available in the following formats, although they do not have images:

  • Online HMTL text
  • Downloadable Epub (with no images)
  • Downloadable Kindle (with no images)
  • Online Plain Text UTF-8 (very similar to HTML text, but a more basic font type)
  • Downloadable *.txt file

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