When seeking US published works in the public domain, there is a gray area from 1923 to 1963 where the book may or may not be in the public domain. To determine if a book with a copyright in that date range is in the public domain and freely usable, take the following steps.
Some background on copyright length in the United States
- Created 1-1-78 or after - Life 70 years1(or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation
- Published before 1923 - In the public domain
- Published from 1923 - 1963 - 28 years could be renewed for 47 years, now extended by 20 years for a total renewal of 67 years. If not so renewed, now in public domain.
- Published from 1964 - 77 - 28 years for first term; now automatic extension of 67 years for second term
- Created before 1-1-78 but not published - Life 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is greater
- Created before 1-1-78 but published between then and 12-31-2002 - Life 70 years or 12-31-2047 whichever is greater
There is one other issue to be aware of - and that is derivative works. For instance, you may find a current book that is apparently a reprint of a public domain book that bears a copyright notice. You may think that because the original book is public domain that this book should be too. Don't let yourself get caught in that trap and use material from this copyrighted book. The way copyright works is that you can create a derivative work from an original public domain work and copyright that derivative work.
The original book is still public domain but the derivative work would not be. If you want to use this material, you must find the original book and use that as your basis because you can never be sure what was changed/edited in the derivative work and if you start copying it, you may fall afoul of a copyright violation.
ALWAYS BASE ANY WORK YOU DO ON AN ORIGINAL PUBLIC DOMAIN SOURCE TO BE SAFE.
If you find a useful book published before 1923, that is great. You don't need to do any verification work to create your product. However, if the book was copyrighted between 1923 and 1963, it may still be under copyright. Estimates are that only 15% of all materials copyrighted in this period were renewed so there is a TON of material available for your use in this period. And much of that material was equivalent to best sellers today so there are many hidden gems out there just waiting to be freshened up and revealed to the world again.
So how do you verify the copyright expiration of one of these books?
There are three approaches you can take. You can do it yourself, hire a law firm to do a search or have the copyright office perform a search for you.
Do it yourself
Doing it yourself is pretty easy but can be a bit time consuming.
If the book was copyrighted between 1950 and 1963, you can perform an online search at the copyright office at this link: http://www.loc.gov/copyright/search/ . This database contains copyright information from 1978 to the current date. Therefore it is limited to doing searches on books copyrighted from 1950 onward. (1950 28 = 1978 which is the year a book copyrighted in 1950 would have been renewed. )
If the book was published between 1923 and 1949, you can go to The Catalog of Copyright Entries . This is a manual search through a large number of alphabetic digitized images. It is a slow process but it is effective. Just to be complete, it is always a good idea to take a few minutes to check a few years around the year plus 28 just in case the renewal fell into another year.
As you do your research, you should print a copy of all the negative results and keep it in a folder as evidence of doing a copyright search.
Have the Copyright office do the search for you
The copyright office will perform a copyright search for you. They do charge an open fee (on an hourly basis) for performing the search and they do take a very long time (typically 6-12 weeks) so while this is an option, it is not a very popular option.
Hire a law firm
You can hire a law firm like Thompson & Thompson to perform a copyright search for you. It is reasonably priced and you will get a detailed report of the results of the copyright search that they performed. The search is reasonably priced and gives you the added security of having a law firm claiming that the copyright is expired and that the work is in the public domain in case there are disputes down the road.
Like any system, searching an expired copyright is not perfect. There may be other claims on a published work or errors and omissions in the copyright files due to human errors. Always keep good records of your search activities to protect yourself on that one in a million chance that there was an unknown claim on the work you choose to work with.
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