When Works Pass into the Public Domain

When Works Pass into the Public Domain
Unpublished Works
Type of Work Copyright Term What will become public domain on Jan. 1, 2003
Unpublished works Life of the author + 70 years Works from authors who died before 1933
Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire (corporate authorship) 120 years from date of creation Works created before 1883
Unpublished works created before 1978 that are published before Jan. 1, 2003 Life of the author + 70 years or Dec. 31, 2047, whichever is greater Nothing. The soonest the publications can enter the public domain is Jan. 1, 2048
Unpublished works created before 1978 that are published after Dec. 31, 2002 Life of the author + 70 years Works of authors who died before 1933
Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known2 120 years from date of creation3 Works created before 18833  
Published Works
Time of Publication Conditions Public Domain Status
Before 1923 None In public domain
Between 1923 and 1978 Published without a copyright notice In public domain
Between 1978 and Mar. 1, 1989 Published without notice and without subsequent registration In public domain
Between 1978 and Mar. 1, 1989 Published without notice but with subsequent registration 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation
Between 1923 and 1963 Published with notice but copyright was not renewed4 In public domain
Between 1923 and 1963 Published with notice and the copyright was renewed5 95 years after publication date
Between 1964 and 1978 Published with notice 95 years after publication date
After Mar. 1, 1989 None 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation
1These two charts, printed in the Society of American Archivists, Jan/Feb. 1999, are based in part on Laura N. Gasaway's chart, "When Works Pass into the Public Domain", and similar charts found in Marie C. Malaro, A Legal Primer On Managing Museum Collections (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998): 155-156.

2These works may still be copyrighted, but certification from the Copyright Office is a complete defense to any action for infringement.

3Presumption as to the author's death required a certified report from the Copyright Office that its records disclose nothing to indicate that the author of the work is living or died less than seventy years before

4A 1961 Copyright Office study found that fewer than 15% of all registered copyrights were renewed. For textual material (including books), the figure was even lower: 7%.

5A good guide to investigating the copyright and renewal status of published is Samuel Demas and Jennie L. Brogdon, "Determining Copyright Status for Preservation and Access: Defining Reasonable Effort," Library Resources and Technical Services," 31:4 (Oct. 1997):323-334.

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