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


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  1. icon
    Nate (profile), 16 Jul 2013 @ 12:56pm

    Re: Re:

    Why would foreign works need to be included?

    In most countries you only need to know when the author died (and sometimes the original date of publication). If the author is alive then it's safe to assume the work is in copyright.

    But if you are asking about works published outside of the US after 1923 and before 1964 but were never renewed in compliance with US law, sorry but I cannot help you. The topic of foreign copyrights and whether they are valid in the US is so complicated that I would direct you to consult an attorney.

    I'm not just talking through my hat. I am also a moderator over at MobileRead Forums, and I have had to check the copyright status of ebooks which were uploaded. My rule of thumb is that I can usually determine the copyright in either 5 minutes or 5 hours. I'm not kidding; sometimes determining the copyright of a work is such a complicated question that it can take hours to answer.

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