by Randy Turrow, UPM

Public Domain is anything not protected by copyright, and thus, may be used freely without permission of the original copyright holders.

Public domain is one of those elusive catch-all words that really doesn't explain a thing. As you'll see. Some people I consulted with said anything published 75 years or more ago is automatically in the public domain. As I discovered that is not true.

The question is, "How long does a copyright last?"

Believe me, that's not an easy question to answer. But I will give you some general guidance here and then try to summarize what it means to you in practical terms.



Works published prior to January 1, 1978 are governed by the Copyright Act of 1909. Under the 1909 copyright  law, a copyrighted work was protected for two consecutive terms of 28 years each-but (and this is a key "but") the copyright was extended into the second 28 year term of protection ONLY IF it was duly and timely renewed prior to the expiration of the first term by filing a renewal application in the Copyright Office.

Therefore the total period of copyright protection, under the 1909 Act, was either 28 years or 56 years from the year of publication. The way to determine the expiration was to search the Copyright Office for the renewal filing.

But, that's not all.

Under the Copyright Act of 1976 (which took effect in 1978) the second 'term' of 28 years was extended to 47 years!

If you are researching a work today that was published in 1910 and it was officially renewed in 1937 (prior to the end of the first "28 year" term of protection) the copyright would last 75 years after the date of publication (28 year first term + a 47 year second term).

If the same work was NOT RENEWED prior to the expiration of the first 28 year term of protection the copyright protection would have expired in 1938, 28 years from the date of publication.

So the maximum protection under the Copyright Act of 1976 granted protection for a maximum of 75 years. But the copyright protection could have expired much, much sooner if it was never renewed.

Then in 1992 Congress passed the Copyright Renewal Act. The Act basically eliminated the need for the filing of a renewal application. So, any work which was first published between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 (The day prior to the effective date of the Copyright Act of 1976) would be automatically renewed for an additional 47 years without the filing of a renewal application.


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