The public domain. Now available for only $165 an hour!*

Copyright Office assignments of copyright

So you want to use a work you think is in the public domain in your creative project.  Hang on; it might not be as simple as you think.

Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. This means these works are no longer protected by copyright and are free for use by anyone in anyway. However, works between 1923 and 1964 fall into a grey area; they may be in the public domain depending on if their copyright was renewed 28 years from the date of the original copyright.

Figuring out if a work is renewed can be a tricky business. The only official records of renewal are held by the Copyright Office in Washington D.C.  However records before January 1, 1978 are not available online. The only way to gain access to these accurate and official records of copyright renewals is to either:

  1. Go  to the Copyright office in person, in Washington D.C. , and research their records using paper card catalogs OR;
  2.  Pay the copyright office $165 an hour to search the copyright records for the original copyright and the renewal notice.

In 2013 should we have to rely on paper card catalogs to help determine if a work is in the public domain?  Moreover, Is a work really public domain if it costs $165 an hour to know it’s in the public domain?

Of course there is a much larger problem. Even a search by the copyright office stating that the work was not renewed isn’t definitive proof that the work you want to use isn’t in the public domain. It’s entirely possible that the work you want to use is actually a derivative work of a public domain work and still under copyright protection. For a great example of how complex this can get check out our video “Is the Wizard of Oz Copyright protected?

The difficulty of assessing which works are in the public domain is a huge problem. Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. When we can’t easily determine what works we can safely use and draw inspiration from creativity is stifled and our critical first amendment right to free speech is chilled. New Media Rights recognizes the complexity of the problem. However, a great first step would be the digitalization of all copyright office records to make them accessible to the public without a plane ticket to D.C. or a $165 an hour surcharge.  

UPDATE: On 9/5/13 New Media Rights sent the Copyright Office a comment about this very issue. That comment is attached to this post.

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This is ridiculous and only punishes those who are trying to do the right thing by honoring copyrights. Creativity is stifled under these circumstances! Who really has the time or money for this research? Not the creative ones! Whatever happened to a simple dating system? If it was older than x, you were free to use it, improve it, or build that better widget. I blame companies like Disney for turning something once simple and straightforward into the ridiculously complicated. I do not want to be sued for illegally using items I believe are in the public domain but neither can I spend an outrageous amount of time tracking down the legality in those gray areas. We need a simple system, which would be fair for all, the originators and those inspired to build upon those creations. Rant aside, yes--digitization would help but it's a tremendous undertaking. Working in a library has taught me that it is much more complicated than one might think.

PD Searches.

As a sales consultant that sells masters of PD titles we have a research firm in Washington that does our research. They do charge $165 per hr. but if you search more that one title at a time you can get it down to $50 per title. Contact me if you wish any information on PD Searches. Louis Mitchell Sales Consultant Hollywood Select Video 805-371-3001 (O)


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