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
    Tim Griffiths (profile), 17 Jul 2013 @ 2:10am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Do you know how every revolution in history has ever started? It's started with people talking together. Suggesting ideas, and debating those suggested by others, to help mold an actionable and common set of ideals and goals.

    A thousand individuals shouting at government all with a individual set of ideas is nothing but ignorable noise. A thousand individuals shouting with one voice for a common set of ideas? That's different.

    Of course revolution requires a call to action and those who will act but action is meaningless with our direction and direction is unachievable without debate and consensus.

    This rhetoric of yours is, if anything, an attempt to produce either inaction or action that is ineffective. There's a subtle difference between calling for people to act on their views and suggesting that discussing those views with like minded people is meaningless. Which suggests you either know that, or don't, either making you intentionally subversive or simply dangerously stupid.

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