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Works in the Public Domain

Copyright Law (What is in the Public Domain)

Since its foundation in the Copyright Act of 1790, U.S. copyright law has gone through many iterations and amendments until it reached its most modern form as Title 17 of the United States Code. Title 17 differentiates works by whether they are unpublished or published works.

Unpublished Works:

In general, unpublished works are protected by law for the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death. If the author is unknown, the work was made for a company, or the death date of the author is unknown, the unpublished works are protected for 120 years after the date of creation. By using these number, unpublished works are in the public domain if the author died before 1941 or if they were created before 1891.

Published Works:

Similar to unpublished works, published works copyrighted on or after January 1, 1978 endure for the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death. For works prior to January 1, 1978, the only published works individuals must be wary of is those published with notice and the copyright was renewed between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1963. These works are protected for 95 years after the date of publication. If the work was published before January 1, 1923, published between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1977 w/o notice, or published with notice but copyright not renewed between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1963, the works are in the public domain.

Determining Copyright Status:

If an item was published between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1963 with a notice we can determine if the copyright is still active by determining whether the copyright was renewed. Although multiple methods are available to gather this information, they vary in feasibility due to time and price. 1) The first method available would be to check if any new edition was published more than 28 years after the original. 2) The second method would be to write to the author, their agent or estate, or the last publisher to determine whether they will reveal whether the copyright was renewed. 3) The third method is to search the copyright records, which are available in print and microform at the Library of Congress and many Federal Depository Libraries. The Federal Depository Libraries in VA are listed here: http://catalog.gpo.gov/fdlpdir/FDLPdir.jsp?flag=searchp&st_12=VA

Once at the library, all that remains is to get the appropriate volume and look up the author and title. 4) The final method would be to arrange for the Copyright Office or a commercial agency to conduct the search. If the Copyright Office conducts the search it will cost $165 per hour of research (2 hour minimum), and $115 for an advanced estimate of the search fee. The fees can be seen here: http://www.copyright.gov/docs/fees.html

Works Published Abroad:

Works published abroad will be in the public domain if they were published before January 1, 1923, and if they were published between January 1, 1923 – December 31, 1977 without compliance with US formalities and in the public domain in the source country as of January 1, 1996. However, if the works were published in compliance with US formalities, published without compliance with U.S. formalities but not in source country public domain, or published in the U.S. more than 30 days after publication abroad without compliance with U.S. formalities, the works will be protected by law 95 years from the date of publication.

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