The Public Domain: Now Available For Only $165 An Hour!*

from the and-even-then,-we-don't-promise-anything dept

So you want to use a work you think is in the public domain in your creative project.  Hang on; it might not be as simple as you think.

Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. This means these works are no longer protected by copyright and are free for use by anyone in any way. However, works between 1923 and 1964 fall into a grey area -- they may be in the public domain depending on if their copyright was renewed 28 years from the date of the original copyright.

Figuring out if a work is renewed can be a tricky business. The only official records of renewal are held by the Copyright Office in Washington D.C. However, records before January 1, 1978 are not available online. The only way to gain access to these accurate and official records of copyright renewals is to either:

  1. Go to the Copyright office in person, in Washington D.C. , and research their records using paper card catalogs OR;
  2. Pay the copyright office $165 an hour to search the copyright records for the original copyright and the renewal notice.

In 2013, should we have to rely on paper card catalogs to help determine if a work is in the public domain? Moreover, is a work really public domain if it costs $165 an hour to know it's in the public domain?

Of course, there is a much larger problem. Even a search by the copyright office stating that the work was not renewed isn't definitive proof that the work you want to use is in the public domain. It's entirely possible that the work you want to use is actually a derivative work of a public domain work and still under copyright protection. For a great example of how complex this can get check out our video “Is the Wizard of Oz Copyright protected?

The difficulty of assessing which works are in the public domain is a huge problem. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. When we can't easily determine what works we can safely use and draw inspiration from, creativity is stifled and our critical First Amendment right to free speech is chilled. New Media Rights recognizes the complexity of the problem. However, a great first step would be the digitization of all copyright office records to make them accessible to the public without a plane ticket to D.C. or a $165 an hour surcharge.

Teri Karobonik is a staff attorney with New Media Rights. New Media Rights is a nonprofit program that provides legal services and advocacy for internet users and creators. This story is reposted with permission.

Filed Under: copyright, liability, public domain, registration, search

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    Gwiz (profile), 16 Jul 2013 @ 12:34pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Wait, are you dismissing my earnest effort to create real political change?

    Kind of a loose definition of "earnest" there, my friend.

    Action that requires removing both buttcheeks from one's office chair?

    Fair enough. Although, at this point in the game, I'm not sure marching in the streets for copyright reform would actually do anything effective. It's really not that much of a hot button topic with the general public.

    Well this site launched 16 years ago and these political changes are still in the birth canal. How much longer do you think we need?

    Well, since this fight is against heavely entrenched players with bottomless lobbying coffiers it's gonna take plenty of time. Public perception of copyright has been changing gradually over the last 16 years. I'm sure this site has contributed to some of that.

    It's more of a problem for you. I don't mind the status quo so much. But if complaining on the Internet and waiting for somebody else to recognize your brilliance and get off their ass to implement your vision is really the most you can possibly do I hope you find it fulfilling.

    First off, not sure "complaining" is the right phrase. I certainly do voice my disagreement with issues, but I wouldn't call it complaining, per se.

    And I am not waiting for anyone to implement my ideas at all. I am merely waiting for public perception of copyright to catch up. Like I said above, change won't happen until the power of the masses exceeds the power of the lobbying dollar. To expend my resources now would be futile. I'll wait until the odds aren't stacked so much in the house's favor.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.