United States Copyright law, as of 1976, sets public domain
at 50 years after the death of the last surviving author, but
this only pertains to works created after 1978. In reality,
we are still very much in the era of the 1909 law, which protects
works up to 75 years from date of publication. The protections
of the 1909 law will therefore be with us through the year 2052.
Further, keep in mind that the US law is only valid in the United
States; if you are concerned with foreign uses, read on.
In territories outside the US, The Berne
Convention (which dates back to 1886, but which the United
States did not join until May 1, 1989) set protection at 50
years from the death of the last surviving author. While most
countries followed this convention, in 1995, the members of
the European Economic Community passed an initiative to extend
copyright to 70 years. Some countries, notably Italy, are
claiming additional protection on works of their national
composers (i.e. Verdi, Puccini), pushing the term to 85 years.
Determining Public Domain status would
appear to be a relatively simple matter in the United States;
simply add 75 years to the original date of publication (see
Determining Public Domain outside the
United States is a more complex proposition, because it requires
both knowledge of the complete authorship of a work, plus
confirmation all the authors death dates.
Here are some common public domain pitfalls:
Protected Editions. The songs of Steven
Foster are in the public domain, but if taken from a book
published in 1970, you will be infringing the copyright of
the book publisher. The source, as well as the work, must
both be in the public domain prior to use.
Protected Musical Arrangements. The folksong
"LITTLE BROWN JUG" is public domain in is original
form, but the Glenn Miller swing version is fully protected
Recordings: Mozart is in the Worldwide
public domain, but taking music from a brand-new digital CD
performance infringes the copyright of the record company.
Using US Public Domain works abroad.
Many works are public domain in the United States by virtue
of their publication dates, but protected abroad because of
the authors death date. Irving Berlin published "I
Love a Piano" in 1912 (making it PD in the US in 1987),
but because Berlin died in 1990, the song is protected in
Canada and beyond through at least 2040.
For assistance in confirming public
domain status, or obtaining cleared editions of public domain
works, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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