Copyright Expiration for Old Books

Table from Wiki:

Copyright Chart

How do I find the copyright 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.

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.

The Showcase was originally set to enter public domain in 1964.

That’s not the case anymore.

Since 1964, copyright right laws have changed. The book 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?

The author, Charles Grayson died in 1973.

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

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”

THEN 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 Case properly 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.

Because the copyright was renewed in 1964, 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 additional copyright renewal years plus the original 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.”

17 Replies to “Copyright Expiration for Old Books”

  1. Hi,

    This is a super helpful article, but I am still a little bit confused. I’ll use an example and hopefully you can steer me straight;

    The Catcher In The Rye
    Jerome David Salinger.
    Renewal ID:
    Original Registration Number:
    Date of Renewal:
    Date of Publication:
    Jerome David Salinger (A)
    Class Code:
    Limitation of Claim; New Matter:
    NM: all matter except two incidents

    Is catcher in the rye now public domain because the 28 years has passed since the copyright renewal in ’79? Does that mean that anyone would be able to distribute this book legally?

  2. Nope. Catcher in the Rye enters the public domain in 2046.

    In 1951, J.D. Salinger had expected 28 years of copyright. Originally, his copyright would have expired in 1979. When the 1976 law was passed, Catcher in the Rye was still under copyright in 1978.

    The extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain added another forty-seven years, giving a total term of seventy-five years.

    Another 20 year extension occurred under the 1998 law.

    The book now has a total of 95 years from the date of publication.

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

  3. My grandfather Chris Herwer wrote a book in 1949 called Dwellers In the Temple of Mondama. published by DeVorss & Co. Los Angeles. CA. My grandfather passed away right after the book was published. So he wouldn’t have a chance to renew the copyright after 28 years? Was his copyright extended out to another 28 years.

    1. The work would have fallen into public domain in 1977 (1949+28) since the copyright was not renewed by whoever the rights passed onto in 1977. “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.”

  4. This article is extremely helpful, as are the links. I have a question, though… if a book was published in 1928, and the copyright was renewed in 1955, but never again, is the book in the public domain?

    1. Good question. I think this question arises from unclear wording about works being copyrighted and still under copyright. But to answer your question – no.

      Because of the Copyright Extension Act of 1998, the book (published 1928) is not in the public domain until 2024. Since the book was renewed, the book was still under copyright at the time the later copyright laws were passed and therefore the book given a full extension of 95 years (1928+75+20). You can also Google “when will books published in 1928 enter the public domain” and see some of the works eligible in Wikipedia. 2024 will be a landmark year as it is the year Mickey Mouse is set to enter the public domain.

  5. Question for myself as well, taking as an example The Art of Being Ruled by Wyndham Lewis. Seems to have been published in London in 1926.
    Theorically, his work in the UK falls into the public domain, if I’m not mistaken in 2027, 70 after his death.
    Here’s what I find on the Standford Database :
    Author: LEWIS, WYNDHAM
    Renewal ID: R131752
    Original Registration Number: A901844
    Date of Renewal: 11Jun54
    Date of Publication: 3 Sep 26
    Claimant: Wyndham Lewis (A)
    Class Code: A
    So he renewed the copyright in 1954 but where was it applying? In the UK ? In the US ? Everywhere ?
    What would say about that?
    Thank you in advance if you take the time to answer me.

    1. The Stanford Database only applies to copyright renewal in the United States. Copyright laws in the U.K. are not dictated by U.S. copyright law or vice versa. A good example is George Orwell’s works which are in the public domain in the U.K. but not in the U.S.. In this particular work you mention, it is the opposite. The Art of Being Ruled is in the public domain in the U.S but not in the U.K.
      Thanks for your question!

  6. Where would I look to see if a copyright has been extended for one of Charles Dickens’ works? Specifically, I am looking for his short story, “Doctor Marigold.” It was originally published in the U.K. in 1864 in Dickens’ magazine. It appears a US publisher just recently published a paperback copy in 2022 (looking on Amazon). I am in the U.S. Thanks in advance!

    1. “Doctor Marigold” is in the public domain. It can be found in The Project Gutenberg. You can get a copyright assigned if you’ve added something, like a foreword, to an edition. However, the original work and text, once entered into a country’s public domain, will always remain in that country’s public domain.

      As a side note, Dickens never received any royalties from American publishers, despite being hugely popular during his lifetime.

      1. Thank you! We are having Gerald Dickens (one of Charles’ great great grandsons) perform ‘Doctor Marigold’ for us and I wanted to be able to provide copies of the work for people who were unfamiliar (we’ve had him perform ‘A Christmas Carol’ and he’s amazing to watch!). So this means I can reproduce the story without issue. Thank you so much!

  7. Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s ‘The Songs We Sing’ was published by Simon & Schuster in 1936, and he died in 1944. Would his written works be public domain? Both his children died and left no heirs.

    1. I don’t see a record of him renewing that particular publication “The Songs We Sing”. Most likely, it was not renewed since most of the songs in this book were already in the public domain. However, many of his other publications did have their copyright renewed. Interestingly, many of those other works now have new claimants.

  8. Hi Jeff,
    I believe that “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll is in the public domain. Does this mean that I can publish and sell it online? Would I also be able to publish and sell the illustrations by Arthur Rackham? I have found, “The Collected Arthur Rackham Artworks” on Amazon and the author has Copyrighted Material on each page. Is he just copyrighting the “collection” or is there something else?
    Your info is very informative.
    Thanks in advance,

    1. Yes, it is in the public domain. You could publish it and sell it online. However, you would need to add something to it like a foreword, preface, or modify it in some way to give it your copyright. Editing a collection or an anthology of public domain works would also allow you a copyright. Sounds like that is the case of the “The Collected Works of Arthur Rackham Artworks”. It really is about making a modification, for better or worse, big or small, that hasn’t been done or said before. One of my favorite “mods” is “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”.

  9. Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for the feedback. I’ll have to check out “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”.
    Best Regards

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