Copyright renewal: when it had to happen, or else

Copyright renewal requirements tripped up a lot of copyright owners before the current copyright law did away with them. Failure to renew caused many works originally published from 1923 through 1963 to enter the public domain.

The 1909 Act (the governing law for those works) provided for two copyright terms: a 28-year initial term and a 28-year renewal term. But the copyright owner didn’t get the second term unless he or she filed a renewal application with the Copyright Office. If the renewal application wasn’t filed on time, before the 28th year expired, the work entered the public domain.

Note: When the 1976 Copyright Act was passed, Congress added 19 years to the renewal term, bringing it from 28 years to 47, for a total of 75 years. Copyrights already in their renewal term got the extra 19 years automatically. Copyrights in their initial 28-year term on 12/31/77 got the 47-year renewal term as long as the copyrights were renewed in their 28th year.

The copyrights for many, many works were not renewed. In fact, the US Copyright Office has estimated that less than 15% of works eligible for renewal were, in fact, renewed. That means a lot of works are in the public domain ... but it also means you have to find out whether copyright renewal happened, or didn’t.

The years to pay attention to are 1923–1963

Just so we’re clear: when the issue is copyright renewal, you need only worry about works that were published during the years 1923 through 1963. If the work was published before 1923, it’s in the public domain. And a 1992 amendment to the copyright law made renewals automatic for works published from 1964 through 1977 so, as far as renewal goes, you don’t have to worry about them.

But there’s something else you must know about 1923–1963 works ...

If the work was first published outside the US, be careful

Okay, here’s a gotcha. Works first published with a copyright notice outside the US were subject to the same renewal rules as works published inside the US, meaning that if a work’s original copyright wasn’t renewed before the end of the 28th year, the work went into the public domain. But that changed in 1996.

On January 1, 1996, foreign works that were in the public domain because their copyrights weren’t renewed had their copyrights restored (as long as certain requirements were met). We’re getting to that, but I wanted to note it here, too. If you want to jump over to the details on this copyright restoration jazz now, go here.

Now where were we? Right, copyright renewal.

How to find out whether a work’s copyright was renewed

Sometimes (if you’re lucky) the copyright notice will actually state that a copyright was renewed. Really. This is often the case with republished works. A renewed copyright will look something like this:

Copyright © 1955 by Astrid K. Author
Copyright renewed 1983 by Astrid K. Author

From this notice you can see that the work was renewed on time, during the 28th year of its original copyright term. But listen, there’s no requirement that renewal be stated in a work’s copyright notice — so don’t count on the absence of a renewal statement to mean that a work is in the public domain.

You’ll most likely have to check the renewal records in the US Copyright Office to be sure. You’ve got three choices here. You can:

No matter how you choose to search, you’ll need the following info:

Doing the search yourself

If you can get to the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress, you can search the records in person. (Most copyright records are open to the public.) You can also do some searches online — but the search is easier for works published on or after 1950.

Works published from 1950 through 1963 are easy

You can do renewal searches for 1950–1963 works online, at the Copyright Office web site. The Copyright Office has put online copyright registration records from 1978 onward. These records include copyright renewals from 1951 onward (and some from 1950, since some copyrights from 1950 could have been renewed in 1977).

Note: The one-year renewal period was measured from the actual date of publication, not the calendar year end. If a work was published on July 1, 1940, it could be renewed during the period from July 1, 1967 through July 1, 1968.

Works published from 1923 through 1949 are harder

Unfortunately, you can’t use the Copyright Office web site to do a copyright renewal search for 1923–1949 works. This is where the news gets kind of bad ... because you may have to manually search something called the Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE).

CC what?

The CCE is, basically, printed and bound volumes of copyright registration and renewal records. Like a card catalog in print, if you will. The Copyright Office published the CCE in printed format from 1891 through 1978. From 1979 through 1982 the CCE was issued in microfiche format. The catalog was divided into parts according to the types (classes) of works registered.

Each CCE segment covered all registrations made during a particular period of time. Renewal registrations made from 1979 through 1982 are found in Section 8 of the catalog. Renewals prior to that time were generally listed at the end of the volume containing the class of work to which they pertained. (Still with me?)

Okay, why do I say you may have to do a manual search? Because some kind people and organizations have been diligently scanning the CCE and putting it online. You can search parts of the Catalog of Copyright Entries on the web.

Note: Stanford University has created a database of searchable copyright renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for books published in the US between 1923 and 1963. The records are for books only, though.

What if you you can’t find the part of the CCE you need online, and you can’t get to Washington DC to search the Copyright Office card catalog? A library near you just might have a copy of the CCE. Libraries in major US cities have copies of the CCE, as do many university libraries. Also, federal depository libraries may have have it. You can search for the nearest depository library here.

And there you have it. We’ve now covered the major ways a work may have entered the public domain: lack of a valid copyright notice, copyright expiration, and failure to renew the copyright. But there’s another way ...

What if the work’s creator decides to put it in the public domain?