Determining whether a work is still under copyright or is in the public domain is one of the most fundamental—and yet most challenging—problems of copyright law. A leading source of the problem is the law. The law of copyright duration is a mess. I have written elsewhere about the problems associated with understanding and applying the duration law. I am happy to post to the Copyright Advisory Office website a new paper intended to walk you through the process of “Researching the Copyright Status of a Book” (PDF). It is linked from relevant pages on the website about permissions and copyright duration.
Apart from the law itself, another problem with identifying works in the public domain is that the resources needed to apply the law have been out of reach. In particular, American copyright law for many years included a requirement that a work had to be “renewed” by filing an application with the U.S. Copyright Office. Without a renewal, the copyright lapsed after 28 years. With a renewal, the copyright lived on for what is now 95 years of protection. How did you learn whether it had been renewed? You needed to visit the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. and inspect the records (not very realistic for most people) or you needed to review the Catalog of Copyright Entries—but few libraries retained all volumes of that massive annual publication. Users had only bad choices.
The quest has been made vastly easier, at least with respect to books, courtesy of Google and the Google Books project. Google has a strong interest in determining whether or not a book is in the public domain, and it has scanned numerous volumes of the Catalog and placed them online for searching. The easy availability of the Catalog is an important development from Google Books.
If you have a book in hand, and you are asking “Is this book still under copyright?” then this paper is for you. Please read and enjoy, and we welcome any comments.
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