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Expanded Copyright (self-paced course)

Self-paced course for faculty and staff to learn the aspects of copyright law that affect higher education. It's intense - if you want something lighter, please go to the Intro to Copyright videos on Learnscape.

Between 1890 and 1978...

The problem we encounter with calculating whether a work is in the Public Domain is that between the late 19th and the late 20th century, the laws kept changing to lengthen the period of copyright and make it harder for works to fall out of copyright by accident. Sometimes the laws were byzantine in complexity.  Each time they changed, older works were grandfathered in under the old laws, while new works fell under the new laws. 

Here is the bad news: in some cases, it won't be possible to know whether a work is in the public domain until 120 years has passed since the last possible year it could have been created. In other cases, you can only figure it out if you have access to records in some country's national library (including our own)... and those old documents aren't digitized... and you have to pay somebody to go dig them up because the public isn't allowed. 

The good news is that many more older works can be established as Public Domain, or the date that they fall into the Public Domain can be calculated, if you solve the problem methodically. The details of the method are too complicated to remember, so we have tools to help. 

Public Domain Flow Charts

Here are some of the things you'll be asking and looking for when you're trying to determine whether a work is in the public domain:

  • Was it created or published in the U.S. or another country? Both? If both, was it published in the U.S. before the other country? 
  • Was it formally published or just created? Can you determine the date of creation and/or publication?
  • Was it created by one or more individuals? Can you identify them? Or was it created by an organization? 
  • Was there a copyright symbol or statement?
  • Was the copyright registered? (Yes, I did say that you don't need to register your copyright. But that wasn't always true!)
  • Was the copyright renewed?
  • Was it affected by copyright restoration under a treaty?

As you can see, some of those answers will be readily apparent, while others will require more research than is worth your while (depending on what your ultimate goals are.)

Public Domain Sherpa is a web site run by a helpful anonymous individual who has created two flow-charts for determining whether a work is in the Public Domain yet. One is for works published in the U.S. and one is for works published elsewhere.