What is Copyright and When Does a Work Fall into The Public Domain?

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal tool that provides the creator of a work the right to control how a work is used.

US Copyright law is a Federal law which protects all kinds of works of authorship. This includes books, magazines, newspapers, and other writings. but can also include music, art, photographs, films/videos, computer software, maps, choreography, and architecture.

The owner of a works Copyright has the right to control how the work is reproduced, distributed, adapted, displayed, and performed.

So, if someone were to use a work that is Copyrighted the owner has the right to sue for suitable compensation for any losses.

But…..the copyright of a work does not last forever.

Some works are not, and never have been, protected by Copyright. For example: the works of Shakespeare. And the works of P.T. Barnum, the circus entertainer, who donated his autobiography to the Public Domain.

And when a work’s copyright expires, that work then falls into the Public Domain. Which means that the work can be freely copied, distributed, adapted, or performed without asking for permission or without paying any royalty fees.

Copyright law is not that difficult but it is confusing because US Copyright law has been amended so many times.

How do you first find out if a work is Copyrighted?

First you need to ascertain if a work was published.

Here is a quick overview right up until 1978 (which is the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act):

All works published in the US before 1923 are in the Public Domain.

Works published in the US between 1923 and 1963 may be in the Public Domain. It is estimated that 85% of all works published between those years have fallen into the Public Domain.

This sounds extraordinary but for those Copyrights to stay valid, the owners had to “renew” the Copyright in the 28th. year after publication. As you can imagine, most forgot. And, many had passed on.

So, in order to check that a work’s copyright had been renewed you need to either hire a specialist company to do the search for you – or, perform the search yourself.

One such specialist company would be Thomson and Thomson based in Washington D.C.

If you want to perform the search yourself, you will need access to the Internet and, depending on when the work was published, the requisite website.

For works published between 1923 and 1949 you need to go to the Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE). On this site you can search by year of publication (you need to add the 28 year renewal period) and look for the work under the author’s last name. For example, for John s. Jacobs, you would search under Jacobs. If the work was Copyright renewed, it will be listed.

For works published 1950 to 1963 (inclusive) you will need to visit the Library of Congress (LOC) website. Here you can search by author or the title of the work. If the work appears, the Copyright was renewed and is NOT in the Public Domain. And therefore you cannot use it.

Any work un-published before the year 1978 will fall into the Public Domain 70 years after the author’s death or by the end of 2002 – whichever is the greater. But if such a work was subsequently published between 1978 and 2002 then that work would not enter the Public Domain until at least the year 2047.

Finally, for all works created after 1978, whether published or not, will not fall into the Public Domain until at least the death of the author plus 70 years.

It is interesting to know that if a work was “renewed” in the 28th. year after publication, when that work would fall into the Public Domain. This can easily be calculated by first knowing the publication date, adding the 28 year renewal, and then a further 47 years (which, at the time was the second term of Copyright) and then adding a further 20 years (because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act). For example: a work publishe in 1923 would not fall into the Public Domain until the year 1923 +28+47+20=2018.

That’s a long time to wait!

Much easier to search for one of the estimated 85% that were not renewed!