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.

Copyright Resources

The copyright office at the Library of Congress is one of the most authoritative 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) and circular 21 which explains fair use provisions of the law in an educational context. This site is always uptodate. Supplement LC with the following sites geared specifically to copyright in an educational, non-profit context.

  • LC tends to minimize fair use provisions of the law. Copyright and Fair Use Website at Stanford provides an alternative (but still cautious) view. This is a good place to learn about fair use.
  • Copyright Essentials for faculty and students, developed by the Copyright Management Center of University of Indiana at Purdue. Covers protection, registration, ownership, rights, duration, fair use, permissions. Especially interesting is discussion of what to do with dead end attempts to secure permission (i.e., you are unable to find a copyright holder or the copyright holder does not respond to requests for permission to copy).
  • Copyright Crash Course developed by University of Texas for UT faculty, students and staff. Includes Fair Use (basics, CONFU guidelines, coursepacks, reserves, how to request permission to copy, etc.), how to determine ownership, multimedia, license contracts, etc. Copyright Law in the Electronic Environment By Georgia Harper, UT Office of General Counsel is aimed at UT faculty. Covers basics like how to determine ownership, Fair Use, getting permission to copy. Focus is on elelectronic/digital copyright problems, library and classroom use, scholarly publishing.
  • Copyright Resource Online includes annotated links to university copyright resources and non-university intellectual property resources. Useful for all the examples of university policies, etc. Last updated 2000?

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mind this summary only applies to published paper-and-ink books/articles, not music, movies, electronic/digital works, unpublished works, works for hire, or other exceptional situations.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 more detailed table, see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, by Peter B. Hirtle.

Permission and Fair Use

Finally, remember, it may be easier to ask the copyright holder for permission to copy than to research the status of a work. Also, keep in mind that the "fair use" provisions of the law are very generous to those copying for educational, not-for-profit purposes. For additional information, see circular 21 which explains fair use provisions of the law in an educational context.