[A2k] “Is this Book Still Under Copyright?” — Columbia Copyright Advisory Office

Manon Anne Ress manon.ress at keionline.org
Wed Aug 11 04:00:18 PDT 2010


“Is this Book Still Under Copyright?”

by Kenneth Crews on August 10, 2010

Determining whether a work is still under copyright or is in the public
domain is one of the most fundamental—and yet most challenging—problems
of copyright law. A leading source of the problem is the law. The law of
copyright duration is a mess. I have written elsewhere about the
problems associated with understanding and applying the duration law. I
am happy to post to the Copyright Advisory Office website a new paper
intended to walk you through the process of “Researching the Copyright
Status of a Book” (PDF). It is linked from relevant pages on the website
about permissions and copyright duration.

Apart from the law itself, another problem with identifying works in the
public domain is that the resources needed to apply the law have been
out of reach. In particular, American copyright law for many years
included a requirement that a work had to be “renewed” by filing an
application with the U.S. Copyright Office. Without a renewal, the
copyright lapsed after 28 years. With a renewal, the copyright lived on
for what is now 95 years of protection. How did you learn whether it had
been renewed? You needed to visit the Copyright Office in Washington,
D.C. and inspect the records (not very realistic for most people) or you
needed to review the Catalog of Copyright Entries—but few libraries
retained all volumes of that massive annual publication. Users had only
bad choices.

The quest has been made vastly easier, at least with respect to books,
courtesy of Google and the Google Books project. Google has a strong
interest in determining whether or not a book is in the public domain,
and it has scanned numerous volumes of the Catalog and placed them
online for searching. The easy availability of the Catalog is an
important development from Google Books.

If you have a book in hand, and you are asking “Is this book still under
copyright?” then this paper is for you. Please read and enjoy, and we
welcome any comments.

Kenneth Crews

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