How to determine copyright & public domain status

How to determine copyright & public domain status

Last modified 12 November 2015.

Determining a work’s copyright or public domain status can be a challenge. Here are resources to help.
It’s fairly easily for a work to be protected by copyright; it need only satisfy four requirements (Hirtle et al., 2009, p. 29):

  • Be perceptible, formerly “tangible,” so this term encompasses both physical and electronic media
  • Be an item created by a person
  • Be original
  • Meet the requirements concerning the nationality of the creator — N.B. A work no longer needs to be published in order to be copyright protected!

Articles & books

Copyright & Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums (2009), by Peter B. Hirtle, Emily Hudson, and Andrew T. Kenyon, is a PDF book available for free under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 US license. It’s especially relevant to this article in the following ways:

  • While Section 102 of Title 17 offers a summary of the kinds of works protected, Chapter 2 has a thorough listing — though not legally complete, alas.
  • Flowchart 3.1 (p. 40) helps assess the ownership and duration of copyright.
  • Table 3.2.1 (p. 42) illustrates the copyright duration for print works that have never been published, never registered, anonymous authors, and deceased authors.
  • Table 3.2.2 (p. 45) illustrates copyright duration for works first published in the US.
  • Flowchart 3.2 (p. 48) shows copyright status for works published between 1923 and 1989.
  • Table 3.3 (pp. 49-51) illustrates copyright status for works by citizens and foreign nationals produced outside of the US.

The Incredible Shrinking Public Domain (2013) is an incisive article by Duke University Law School (CSPD, see below) on how our copyright laws are becoming restrictive towards creativity and access.

What could have entered the public domain on January 1, 2015 (under the law that existed until 1978…works from 1958), written by the CSPD, shows how stingy copyright protection can be concerning the public public — especially with film and music.

The Law Belongs in the Public Domain (C. McSherry, 14 January 2014). US laws are in the public domain, but openness of state bills and local ordinances is a hotly contested issue.

Online resources

Despite the challenge in verifying copyright or public domain status, there remains a wealth of media available under the public domain as well as DRM-free.

Center for the Study of the Public Domain (CSPD) provides information and news on when popular works of all media enter or remain in the public domain.

Search Records at the US Copyright Office to check on copyright status; see also the Copyright Renewal Database below.

Copyright Renewal Database is useful since heirs and corporations can and do extend the copyright protections of works!

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, maintained by Hirtle (last revised 1 January 2015), is one of the best, most comprehensive tools for determining copyright status and duration for all kinds of materials — including printed works, sound recordings, and architectural works!

The Public Domain: Rich Stim defines and describes issues with public domain works.

Public Domain Review is an online journal that investigates ideas, news, and studies on the public domain, supported by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

Public Domain Sherpa offers tools on how to analyze and calculate public domain status.

Public.Resource.Org focuses on “making government information more accessible.” You’ll find many federal, state, and local government documents, organized by agency, that could otherwise be hidden or buried.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 How to determine copyright & public domain status by Sarah Liberman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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