Copyright holders today are fortunate in that they do not have to renew registration for their copyright once it’s granted. Under current laws, a copyright now lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Anonymous works, works created under a pseudonym, or works made for hire are granted copyright projection for 95 years from the year of its first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.
However, authors that secured their copyrights prior to January 1, 1978, did not enjoy this benefit, and many protected works were lost to the public domain because their registrations were not properly renewed in time.
Renewal Requirements for Older Copyrights
The magic year to go by when evaluating the status of an older copyright is 1923. Any work published prior to 1923 is now in the public domain without exception.
The works that may or may not have copyright protection fall between the years of 1923 and 1964. Copyright holders during this time were required to file a renewal application with the Copyright Office before the end of the 28th year. If the renewal application was not filed in time, and ultimately not granted, the work lost copyright protection and reverted back to the public domain. However, if the author properly renewed their copyright, it’s likely that protection of the work still exists today.
Works published after 1964 enjoy the same protections that were granted in 1978 because of retroactive laws.
How can you tell if an older copyright was actually renewed?
Tracking down the status of an older copyright can be tricky, but you do have a few options:
- The copyright itself may offer proof of renewal. If it has been renewed, the copyright inside the work may look like this: Copyright © 1956 by ABC Author, Copyright renewed 1983 by ABC Author. Keep in mind that there is no requirement that a renewal be stated in a copyright notice, so the absence of one does not mean that copyright protection does not exist.
- Conduct a search at the Copyright Office for works published from 1950-1963. You can pay to do a search yourself or hire an experienced copyright attorney to help you track down information on the work you are interested in. You should be prepared to provide the author, title, or name of the collection, publication year, and publication country. As of the date of writing this, the Copyright Office website is not user friendly and needs some updating.
- Works published prior to 1950 may be searched in the Catalogue of Copyright Entries (CCE). Unfortunately, works published between 1923 and 1949 are a lot harder to track down and require a manual search of the CCE, which is similar to an old card catalog. If you are lucky, you may find what you are looking for in the portions of the archive that can now be searched online. All other entries that are not included on the website will need to be searched manually at the Copyright Office in Washington, DC, or possibly at the library in your major local city, if they have a copy.
- Contact the author, agent, or the estate. Sometimes, you can go directly to the source of the work to find out the status of a copyright. If the author or estate kept good records, they may be able to point you to renewal paperwork, or let you know that the work was not, indeed, renewed.
If finding out the status of an older copyright is important to you, consider talking to a copyright attorney for suggestions on the best places to start your search. While the options above are all available, your attorney will be able to evaluate the work and lead you down the path that will result in the least amount of time and money spent.
If you need assistance tracking down the status of an older copyright, we invite you to contact our New York and Charleston copyright attorneys at the Law Office of Jason H. Rosenblum, PLLC by calling (888) 666-0062.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney.
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