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This guide applies to those researching copyright renewals of works published in the U.S. only. Information provided is for research guidance regarding the use of Catalog Copyright Entries. Any information provided should not be considered legal advice. One should consult with a licensed attorney for further support.
In a world of writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, architects, and computer programmers, understanding where copyright exists and when one may legally reproduce another’s work is the primary duty of a responsible user of information or creative works. Understanding copyright, the copyright renewal process, and the public domain may aid and assist one in creating and protecting one’s own intellectual work.
In a society dominated by online user-created content, blogs, YouTube® and social media, knowing when you can use someone else’s work legally should be your first priority. This applies to all creators in all formats. Millions of people write, record, photograph, score, upload, and create new material in many forms every single day. It is very easy to borrow unlawfully. This guide will help you understand copyright basics, and help you to determine if a work is a part of the public domain by tracing and researching its copyright renewal records. For a better understanding of fair use, please see our separate section on fair use.
To better understand copyright renewal, one must know how copyright works, what it is, and how long it can last. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright is a form of legal protection granted to authors and creators of “original works of authorship.” These original works may include “literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works,” according to Title 17, U.S. Code. In the United States, this protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act commonly grants the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to “produce, and to authorize the reproduction of a work, prepare derivation, distribute copies, and perform or display the copyrighted work publicly.”
Are you an author or creator of an “original work?” Registering your own work with the U.S. Copyright Office is an excellent idea for a number of reasons. Primarily, once you register your copyright, it becomes a public record. Your registration will be accessible and on-file for reference. This is especially helpful should someone try to infringe on your copyrighted work without permission. When one’s copyright registration is on-file, in an instance of copyright infringement, this protection could allow the copyright holder to seek maximum monetary damages.
The Public Domain
Public Domain is an example of certain intellectual works which are NOT protected by copyright. When the copyright of a work expires and is not renewed, or if the copyright was forfeited (for any reason), or by Copyright Law is deemed an inapplicable work, the work enters into the public domain. When a work is part of the public domain, one need not ask permission to borrow, distribute, or use it in any way. See current Copyright Term and the Public Domain chart from Cornell University Library. Also, the Center for the Study of the Public Domain offers “research and scholarship on the contributions of the public domain to speech, culture, science and innovation” including, information about the treasure trove of books, music, and movies entering the public domain each year.
It is imperative as consumers of these mediums that we understand the importance of giving credit where credit is due, and borrow from other intellectual works correctly, e.g. fair use portions. But how can we find out if a work’s copyright has expired and entered into the public domain, or has been renewed? First, we must perform a search of the U.S. Copyright Office catalog records. Let's now review how to determine if a copyrighted work has been renewed. If it was not renewed, the work is now part of the public domain and available to the public for free use.
The Copyright Renewal Process
From 1909 to 1977, the United States Copyright Law enabled creators who registered and labelled their work with a valid copyright notice (e.g. ©, or Copyright Jane Doe Year Published) to protect their work for an initial period of 28 years. Once the work had reached its 28th year of protection, the creator was required to file a renewal notice with the Copyright Office for an allotted extension of 28 years. This period was called the “renewal term.” Again, if the work was not renewed, it fell into the public domain.
Researching Works Published Through 1963
One should only be concerned with works published in the U.S. up to 1963. Why? Most works published 96 years or earlier are in the public domain, whether or not they were renewed; the reason being that even had their copyrights been renewed, all would have expired by 1998. The Copyright Office estimated that only 15% of copyrights registered from 1923-1963 were ever renewed. As noted above, if works published through 1963 were not renewed around the 28th year, most likely are in the public domain. However, works published bewteen 1950-1963 were eligible for renewals of 47 more years plus an extension of 20 years. Works published between 1964-1977 were automatically renewed. For published through 1963, the same three-year window should be reviewed.
DIY: Copyright Verification
Before you begin your copyright renewal search yourself, you must first gather some very important preliminary information so as to verify and locate the proper record. To do this, locate the following information:
· the title
· the author
· publication year
· country of publication
All records of U.S. copyright registrations and renewal records from 1978 to present are available via the Copyright Office’s online catalog. Registration and renewal records prior to 1978 can be found in a “scanned pages” format via the Copyright Office’s virtual set of volumes called the “Catalog of Copyright Entries.” These scanned copies cover the years 1891-1977. Google Books also offers scanned copyright records. Some libraries house physical paper indexes to these identical older records, as well.
Recently, the Copyright Office debuted Copyright Card Catalog images entitled as the Virtual Card Catalog (VCC) Proof of Concept. The VCC provides an index to copyright registrations, renewals, and other public records tied to copyright ownership. VCC contains copyright records from 1870 to 1977. The Copyright Office offers a Virtual Card Catalog tutorial demonstration. It descsribes how to access, browse, print, and save cards while browsing the online VCC.
For additional background on this topic, see Circular 22: How To Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work from the Library of Congress. Another insightful resource is Searching the Copyright Office and Library of Congress Records published by Richard Stim at Stanford University Libraries. Much of its content is derrived from Stim's book Getting Permission published by Nolo.
Special Acknowledgment: Thanks to Jill Liebisch, the author of the expression of this Copyright Renewal research guide.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Information on this page and other content from the YIP website, programs, or services are provided for informational purposes only. Any information provided should not be considered legal advice. YIP seeks only to facilitate related information and community connections to further IP awareness. Any information received from YIP should not substitute for securing legal advice from a licensed attorney.