Genealogists and many others received a legal setback this week. An attempt to declare several present copyright laws unconstitutional was dismissed before the arguments were even presented in open court.
For most of the 20th century, artists, authors, and other creators had to register with the copyright office to get a copyright and were granted a term of 28 years. At the end of that term, they had to renew their copyright to get a 28-year extension. Many didn't bother to renew, and the work entered the public domain. After intense lobbying by several giant media corporations, Congress passed several laws that gave copyright owners far more power. It removed the registration and renewal requirements, so now anything "fixed in a tangible medium" is under copyright, and the term is the life of the creator plus 70 years.
The result of the new laws makes it impossible for long-out-of-print genealogy books to be digitized and made available online for at least 70 years. In cases when the exact date of death of the author is unknown, the only practical solution is to wait 120 years or longer.
The present copyright laws insure that Disney, Sony, and other music and movie producers will continue to reap millions of dollars from their copyright-protected works. However, the same laws deny genealogists and others access to valuable information published by small companies and individuals. The case in question involves “orphan works:” books and other works in which the copyright holder is deceased or unable to be located.
You can read more about this recent court action at