Copyright Expiration for Old Books

copyright of works first published in US
from wikipedia

How do I find the copyright expiration for old out of print books?

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

For books copyrighted before 1978, you have to search through the renewal records.


Books published between 1923 & 1963 & had copyright renewed > Stanford Database

Google’s searchable scans of copyrights 1922-1977 > Google copyright search

Copyrights & renewals after 1978> United States Copyright Office

Here is an example.

The book The Show Case by Charles Grayson originally copyrighted on June 15, 1936. At that time, copyright right protection was set at 28 years plus another 28 years if the copyright was renewed and extended.

On May 25th, 1964, Charles Grayson had the copyright extended for his book The Show Case another 28 years until the year 1992.

If the book’s copyright was not renewed in 1964, the book would have fallen into the public domain forever at that point in time. That is likely the case for the majority of the books published in 1936. But Charles Grayson renewed it and the book was set to enter the public domain in 1992.

That’s not the case anymore.

Since 1964, copyright right laws have changed. The book The Showcase does not enter the public domain until after 2031.

How did that happen for a book (you’ve probably never heard of or will read ever) published in 1936? (but maybe you’ve heard of the The Great Gatsby)

The author, Charles Grayson died in 1973.

Since his death, three things happened to U.S. copyright protection laws.

  • The Copyright Act of 1976
  • Copyright Renewal Act of 1992
  • Copyright Term Extension Act

From Wikipedia:

The extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain was increased from twenty-eight years to forty-seven years, giving a total term of seventy-five years.

Therefore under the Copyright Act of 1976 (law took effect in 1978), the still under copyright book had its copyright extended by 47 years and would have not gone into the public domain until 2011 (1936+28+47).

In effect, the book The Show Case was given a full term extension of 75 years (1936+75).

Then the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 passed. This Act gave books published after 1964 the automatic extension of 47 years of copyright extension without the author having to renew after 28 years. Basically at this point in time, copyright protection became 75 years instead of the previous 28 years.

From Wikipedia:

Works copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 are affected by the 1992 Amendment. Renewal registration for these works was made optional by this amendment, and a second term was automatically secured…However, if a copyright originally secured before January 1, 1964, was not renewed at the proper time, protection would have expired at the end of the 28th calendar year of the copyright”

Under the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 law another plus twenty years were added to the extension:

Twenty more years were added to the second term for works copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 by Public Law 105-298. This made the total duration of copyright for these works 95 years.”

According to the 1998 law, since Charles Grayson had his copyright for The Show Caseproperly renewed in 1964, the copyright was then extended by another 20 years to 2031(1936+75+20).

But, the law extended copyright protection to the author’s life plus 70 years. Basically, copyright protection is 95 years or 70 years + the author’s life.

So, Charles Grayson died in 1973.

Only if the work was created after 1977 does a work get the 70 years + life. See Cornell copyright link.

Therefore the book The Showcase published in 1936 goes into the public domain after 2031.

In summary, for books published between and including the years 1964 and 1977, copyright protection is 95 years. Published before 1964, public domain depends on if the book had the copyright renewed or not. While Charles Grayson only expected another 28 years of copyright protection in 1964, he received another 39 years on top of the 28 years due to subsequent changes in copyright law.

It is possible for a book published in 1923 to not be in the public domain until after 2018  (1923+95) if the author took the time to have the copyright renewed! But because most authors didn’t renew their copyright, books published in or before 1963 have a very good chance of being in the public domain.

From Google,

For U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963, the rights holder needed to submit a form to the U.S. Copyright Office renewing the copyright 28 years after publication. In most cases, books that were never renewed are now in the public domain. Estimates of how many books were renewed vary, but everyone agrees that most books weren’t renewed. If true, that means that the majority of U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963 are freely usable.”

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