Copyright Q&A: Has This Copyright Expired?

by Kenneth Crews on March 4, 2011

I am preparing a new website, and I want to include text, images, music, and other material from a variety of early books.  The books were published in years ranging from about 1900 to 1940.  I have heard that the copyrights in early books have expired unless renewed.  How can I tell if the copyright was renewed or not?

Copyrights last many years, but they do expire.  The rules of copyright duration are complicated and often a mess.  But a few rules can deal with most situations.  For works that were published before 1978 (when Congress made major changes in the Copyright Act), the general rule is that copyright lasts for 95 years from publication.  Hence, a book published in 1930 may be protected through December 31, 2025.  Add this rule to the mix: Works published in the U.S. before 1923 are in the public domain.  Based on that rule, a book from 1910 no longer has copyright protection.

Here is where it gets messier.  For works published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1964, the copyrights needed to be renewed with the U.S. Copyright Office before the end of the 28th year following publication.  If the copyright was not renewed, it expired.  Thus, the 1930 book may well be in the public domain, but you have to do some research to find out.  That task has been made much easier in recent years since Google has begun to scan and post online the Catalog for Copyright Entries, the published list of copyright registrations and renewals.  You can now search these large books online and find critical information to help determine the copyright status of books.  For more information, see our website’s section on Duration and Public Domain, as well as our section on Finding the Owner.

Even though the investigation of a copyright is getting easier, it is still a bit of a homework project, and it might leave you feeling a tad unsure about whether you found the right information.  Before getting started, ask yourself how badly you need that particular work, or whether an alternative might serve your needs.  You should also be prepared to cope with a bit of uncertainty.  If you need more assurance, you can–for a fee–request that the U.S. Copyright Office conduct a search of its records and provide certified copies of documents.

[This Q&A is courtesy of the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University.  It is for information purposes and is not legal advice.]

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