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How Old Can a Copyrighted Work Be?

Cover of Time Magazine published March 3, 1923

Cover of Time Magazine published March 3, 1923

Sometimes people want to know whether a work is so old that it it can be copied without any possibility of infringing anyone’s copyright. This post provides the answer (in the United States).

Before January 1, 1979 – when then-existing copyrights were automatically extended to 95 years from the end of the year in which the copyright was secured – copyrights were in effect for 28 years, with extension, if requested, for a second 28-year period (total of 56 years).

So, the earliest a work could have been copyrighted (which, at that time, required publication with a copyright notice) and still received the automatic extension was 56 years before January 1, 1979, i.e., January 1, 1923. The copyright for such a work would expire on December 31, 2018 (after 95 years).

So there is no need to worry about infringing the copyright on any pre-1923 published work, because it is in the public domain.

The foregoing does not necessarily apply to a pre-1923 unpublished work, which might be subject to copyright protection (i.e., might not be in the public domain). Determining copyright status for an older work that was never published or registered (or that was published or registered after an extended period of time) can be rather complicated. Please see Copyright Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright and Copyright at Cornell Libraries: Copyright Term and the Public Domain.

Later works, too, may be in the public domain, but there are quite a few factors to consider. These are discussed in Copyright Office Circular 15A (Duration of Copyright). Similar information is presented in tabular form in Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Check out all posts about copyright.

Dana H. Shultz, Attorney at Law  +1 510 547-0545  dana [at] danashultz [dot] com
This blog does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer directly.

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