Copyright Expiration and Fair Use

Section one of this page lists copyright resources helpful in an academic environment. Section two tells you how to determine if a given work is still protected by copyright law.

Introduction to Copyright

The copyright office at the Library of Congress is one of the most helpful copyright websites on the net. This easily navigable site is especially useful for applying for copyright, viewing the copyright law, and searching copyright records. Be sure to read circular one (a good intro to copyright law).

The Fair Use doctrine allows generous but not unlimited copying in an educational, non-profit context to support personal research. Copyright and Fair Use Website at Stanford provides a good introduction to Fair Use. Also consider Columbia's Fair Use and Fair Use Checklist. Fair User Evaluator and circular 21, from the Library of Congress, are also helpful. Another good site is Copyright Crash Course developed by University of Texas for UT faculty, students and staff. It includes Fair Use (basics, CONFU guidelines, coursepacks, reserves, how to request permission to copy, etc.), how to determine ownership, multimedia, license contracts, etc.

Determining if US Copyright
Has Expired

Here is our understanding of the law. Keep in mind this summary only applies to published paper-and-ink books/articles, not music, movies, electronic/digital works, unpublished works, works for hire, or other exceptional situations. The library cannot offer legal advice and we do not guarantee the accuracy of this summary, but we have tried to be accurate. If you believe a correction is needed, contact us.

Copyrighted before 1923

Books copyrighted in the US before 1923 are now in the public domain; their copyrights have expired and it is legal to copy such works.

Copyrighted 1923-1963

Books initially copyrighted in the US from 1923 through 1963 are still protected by copyright law if the initial copyright was renewed. The initial copyright term was 28 years and the renewal was 67 more years (formerly only 47 years). For example, a book initially copyrighted in 1923, and renewed, will pass into the public domain in 2019 (i.e., 1923+28+67+1).

  1. To search for copyright renewals of books originally copyrighted 1923-1963, search the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database. If you don't find a renewal here, then the work is now probably in the public domain. Also check Copyright renewal records at Rutgers.
  2. To search for copyright renewals of books originally copyrighted 1951 to date, consult the Library of Congress Copyright Database. This copyright database records every US work copyrighted from 1978 to date. It includes copyright renewals as well as initial copyrights. Works initially copyrighted in 1951 were due for renewal in 1978. So if a work was initially copyrighted 1951-1963, but a renewal is not recorded in this database, then the work is probably in the public domain.

Copyrighted 1964-1977

All books initially copyrighted in the US from 1964 through 1977 have had their copyrights automatically renewed (by law) and the copyrights are still in force. The initial copyright term was 28 years; the renewal was for 67 more years. So a book initially copyrighted in 1964 will pass into the public domain in 1964 + 28 + 67 + 1= 2060.

Copyrighted 1978-

All books initially copyrighted in the US from 1978 to date are still protected by copyright law. The period of copyright protection is governed by complex rules. Generally speaking copyright protection ends 70 years after death of author.

Summary

Initial US copyright Current copyright status
before 1923 no longer protected by copyright
1923-1963 Still protected by copyright law if renewed; check for renewal at Stanford Copyright Renewal Database and the Library of Congress Copyright Database to cover the entire date range.
1964-1977 Still protected by copyright law. Protected 28+67=95 years from initial copyright date.
1978- Still protected by copyright law. The period of copyright protection is governed by complex rules. Generally speaking copyright protection ends 70 years after death of author.

For a similar but much more detailed table, see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, by Peter B. Hirtle.

Permission

Finally, remember, it may be easier to ask the copyright holder for permission to copy than to research the status of a work.