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.”

6 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.

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