Genealogists use old books more often than most other people. Indeed, we also want to take excerpts from an old book and publish those excerpts as part of our own family’s genealogy. However, is that legal? Does the book still enjoy copyright protection?
Under U.S. laws, the answer is simple for books published prior to 1924: the book is now in the public domain (not copyrighted). For books, films, and other works published in 1924 or later, however, the question quickly becomes complicated.
Anything published in 1924 will remain under copyright until the year 2020, anything published in 1925 will remain under copyright until the year 2021, and so on.
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to bestow exclusive rights to a creator for “limited times.” Unfortunately, the words “limited times” were not precisely defined in the Constitution and politicians since then have specified longer and longer periods of copyright protection.
In the first copyright act in 1790, copyright protection was limited to 14 years, with the option to apply for an automatically granted 14-year renewal. By 1909, copyright protection was increased to 28 years, with the option to apply for an automatically granted 28 year renewal.
There was a further complication: copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork. If they did, the paperwork could be lost. There is no single computer database listing the copyright dates of every publication. Indeed, there isn’t even a single office or other location where anyone can look at paper records listing copyright expiration dates. In short, you cannot easily find the copyright expiration date of any of the older publications.
The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself.
In 1976, the U.S. copyright laws were radically changed to agree with the Berne Convention, an international agreement originally signed in 1886. All new books were switched to an expiration date of the author’s life plus 50 years. In 1998, an act named for Sonny Bono, who was recently deceased and always was a defender of Hollywood’s expansive rights, bumped that to 70 years. These new restrictions applied only to books published on or after the date of the new laws. Older books were not impacted.
So the originally question was, “Is That Book Still Under Copyright?” The only accurate answer for books published in 1924 or later is: “Maybe.”