The Online Books Page

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?

A reader asks:
How could I find out whether a book... has had its copyright renewed? Is there any method other than paying a copyright search company?
First of all, you need to know when renewal matters. In the US, books published before 1964 had to get their copyrights renewed at the Library of Congress Copyright Office in their 28th year, or they'd fall into the public domain. Some books originally published outside the US by non-Americans are exempt from this requirement, and in fact some such books had their copyrights restored recently. If you need to know more about the rules for books published outside the US, see this page from the Copyright Office, explaining recent changes in copyright law imposed by GATT. Basically a work is exempt from renewal requirements if all of the following conditions apply:

If you can prove any of these conditions don't apply, and the work was originally published or copyrighted before 1964, then the work had to be renewed in order to stay copyrighted in the US.

Wikipedia has a page on Non-US copyrights that has more information about the details of US copyright restoration from various countries, though I can't vouch for the accuracy of the information there.

Up until 1998, renewed copyrights ran an additional 47 years (hence, 75 years total), rounded up to the end of the calendar year. A copyright extension bill signed that year extended copyrights still in force for an additional 20 years. However, since copyrights from 1922 had already expired, anything copyrighted before 1923 is now in the public domain in the United States, even if its copyright was renewed. Copyrights from 1923 to 1963, if not renewed, and not made exempt from the renewal requirement (see above) have also expired.

There are a few ways to find out whether a copyright was renewed. Some are easier than others; some are more definite in their answers than others.

One easy way to check, sometimes, is just to see if there was any edition published more than 28 years after the original edition, and see if there's a renewal notice in that newer edition. This doesn't always work-- a lot of books simply don't get reprinted-- but if there is such an edition, it can be an easy check to make.

Another way that doesn't involve an exhaustive copyright record search is to write to the author, or their agent or estate, or to the last publisher of the book, and see if they can tell you whether the book's copyright was renewed. Of course, you might not always be able to reach them, and they might not always cooperate, but people on the Net have done this before and found out what they wanted to know. Sometimes, even if the copyright has been renewed, by mailing them you might be able to convince them to let an edition go online anyway.

It's also possible to do a search yourself of the copyright records. For 1978 onward, they're online at the Copyrigh Office, and below I'll describe how you can search the online records. Most book-related renewal records from years from 1950 to 1977 are now also online at least in page image form.

Other copyright records prior to 1978 are available in print and microform, both at the Library of Congress, and at other major libraries around the country, including many Federal Depository Libraries. A few libraries known to have a reasonably full set are the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, the Free Library of Philadelphia (in microform), the University of Chicago library, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Since a copyright renewal has to be sometime in the 28th year, you'd look for renewals in the records for the original copyright date plus 27 years and the original date plus 28 years. So if the copyright was originally 1941, you'd look at the volumes for 1968 and 1969 to see if there was a renewal. I've recently been told that occasionally the Library of Congress will be slow in publishing renewals (i.e. some renewals made in December in some years don't actually get published until the following January), so you may have to look in the original copyright date plus 29 years to catch these.

I've done this myself for some books. It's a bit of a cumbersome process-- you have to get to the library, and get the appropriate volumes, and then look up the author and the title-- but it can be done.

How to have someone else search for you

You can also arrange for the Copyright Office to do the search for you. There's a form you can fill out and send to them, and they'll eventually let you know if they find any renewal records, and if so, what they say. This has gotten rather expensive as of late; as of January 2010, the fees amount to $165 per hour (with a 2-hour minimum) for them to search their files for you. If you want an advance estimate of the search fee, it will cost $115 more! If you're precise in your book specification, they should be able to complete the search within the 2-hour minimum. See Circular 22 for more details, and a copy of the search request form.

Finally, there are also commercial agencies that will also search for you. Their fees may be higher or lower than LOC's, and they might be also able to track down publishers, authors, and heirs for you as well, if needed.

So there are a number of different ways you can go about it, depending on what you're most comfortable with. As I said above, though, if the book is actually out of print and there isn't much in the way of royalties at stake, the original author may well be willing to have an edition go online, whether or not the copyright was renewed, especially if you can show how the online book will give his or her work many more generations of audience.

One important note: remember that if a book contains material previously published elsewhere, that material may still be protected under its own copyright. You can't assume that a book as a whole is in the public domain unless you've determined that the copyrights for the book and for any previously published material included in the book have expired. Note also that materials may not always be in the categories you expect: for example, some pulp fiction "books" were registered as periodicals, and some annual or particularly large "periodicals" were registered as books.

If you simply want to see a book online, and suspect its copyright has expired, you could see if the book has been scanned by a mass digitization service. If it has been scanned, but is not viewable in full, they might be willing to try to clear the book themselves, and turn it on for full view if it appears to be out of copyright. This won't give you a definitive answer on the book's public domain status (since they might be wrong), but it may at least give you full access to the book you want, for little or no cost. Some projects are starting to investigate user-triggered copyright clearance I don't know of any yet that have a formal public mechanism for this, but I will update this page if I hear of any. In the meantime, requests for pre-1964 books that may be out of copyright can be sent to The Online Books Page for public recording, and possible eventual full posting online.

How to search online copyright renewal page scans (1950-1978)

Various projects have scanned many copyright renewal records from 1950-1978. Using them, you can find renewals for copyrights from 1923 through 1950. The scans can be found from this page. There are also transcriptions for the book renewals provided by Project Gutenberg, which are now searchable in a Stanford database as well. These transcriptions and databases can be useful for finding a renewal quickly, but there may be errors in the transcriptions, and renewals in non-book categories might not be included in the transcriptions or databases, so they should not be considered definitive. You should still double-check against the page images, just in case there was a transcription error, or you accidentally missed a renewal.

Searching these scans works much like searching the printed volumes as described above. If you're looking for the renewal of a book that was originally published in year X, then you'll need to look for the renewal records in years X+27 and years X+28 (and X+29, if the Copyright Office is running slow). Look up both the title and the authors of the book, in both the January-June sections, and the July-December sections. Also, if portions of the book were originally published elsewhere (such as in a magazine), or includes artwork, there may be separate copyrights for the magazine, earlier book, artwork, or the magazine version of the work. You may therefore have to search renewals in those categories as well.

How to search the Copyright Office's online copyright records (1978-present)

The Copyright Office's records for 1978 onwards are online at http://www.copyright.gov/records/. Using them, you can find renewals for copyrights from 1951 and later. (Copyrights for 1950 could also be renewed in 1977, so they might not be in the database.) Below I'll describe in detail how to search the database, for those who are interested.

Failure to find a renewal record here does not necessarily mean that the book is in the public domain. Because of changes in copyright law, books published in 1964 or later, and many books that were originally published outside the US by non-American authors, do not have to register or renew in order to be copyrighted. (See the Library of Congress Website for details.) Also, it's possible for a number of works by a particular author, or published in a particular magazine, to be covered under one blanket copyright that may or may not mention the individual pieces by name. So when researching the copyright for a particular piece, you should know its author and publication history, and use this information in your record searches as well.

You may also want to check with the original author, or their estate or publisher, if you want to avoid possible problems.

Here's a quick, step-by-step version of how to search the copyright listings, using J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as an example.

Start at the Copyright Catalog search page. You can then look up works by their title, name of author or copyright claimant, or other criteria. The title and name search options are based on prefixes, and there's also a relevance-ranked keyword search. To look up the Catcher in the Rye, for instance, we could select the "Title" option, and then type in

  Catcher in the Rye
in the search box. (Note that the instructions tell us to omit the initial article, so we left off the "the".) When we hit return or select "Begin Search", we'll see the start of a list of results (which had 63 items in it when I tried this).

Or, we could select the "Name" option, and type in the author's name, last name first. We could, for instance, type in

  Salinger, J
At this writing, that produced a list of 49 items. If we wanted to do a keyword search instead, we could select the keyword option and enter something like
  salinger catcher rye
But note that this turns up many more items (over 3000 when I tried it), including those that only match some of the keywords. This can be useful for popping a possibly relevant result up to the top, particularly if you and the Copyright Office records don't agree on the exact forms of title and author names. But you probably won't be able to do an exhaustive scan of the results, and if you put in common words like "in" and "the", it may take a very long time for the search to complete.

A more precise form of keyword search is the "Command Keyword" option. Here you'll have to follow the special command keyword syntax, which includes putting things like AND or OR between search terms. If we select that option and try

  salinger AND catcher AND rye
we get a much shorter results list (18 when I tried) where only the items with all 3 keywords, spelled exactly as typed, will appear.

(If you're checking for the absence of a record, you should do the search in a number of ways to be sure; go through the lists produced by title and author searches, and try a keyword search as well just to be safe.)

The results list will come up in the form of a table, with columns that include "Full Title", "Copryight Number", and "Date" (as well as some other columns in some other searches). If the results list contains more than 25 items, they will be displayed 25 at a time, with "previous" and "next" links to go forward and backward in the list.

To find renewals, look for Copyright Numbers starting with "RE". (One quick way to find many such records is to resort the results by Date (ascending). Since the renewal records tend to be indexed by the date of the of the initial registration, which tends to be prior to 1978, the renewal records will usually appear before other records when you sort by ascending date.)

If you did the search right, and you go through the results list, you should spot a row looking something like this:

Catcher in the rye. By Jerome David Salinger. RE0000018341 1951

So it looks like it's been renewed. The "RE" registration numbers represent a renewal. (If you see "TX", this represents an initial text copyright.)

If I want to see more details about this registration, I select the link that's on the title. I then get a record that looks something like this:

Type of Work: Text
Registration Number / Date: RE0000018341 / 1979-01-22
Renewal registration for: A00000056070 / 1951-06-11
Title: The Catcher in the rye. By Jerome David Salinger.
Copyright Claimant: Jerome David Salinger (A)
Basis of Claim: New Matter: all matter except two incidents.
Variant title: The Catcher in the rye
Names: Salinger, Jerome David, 1919-

This tells me that the original copyright started June 11, 1951, that it was renewed January 22, 1979, and that the copyright holder at the time of renewal was J. D. Salinger. The original copyright registration "number" was "A-56070". (The current database pads the registration numbers with zeros. Also, the way they assign these numbers has changed over time; for earlier years, text copyright registrations started with A and renewals with R; in later years, such as the ones covered by this database, text copyrights started with TX and renewals with RE. The new renewal record number, without padding, is "RE18341".) The "Basis of Claim" line means that all of the text except for two incidents is covered by this particular copyright. (I don't know what the two incidents in question are; perhaps they were revised, appeared in an earlier story, or are quotes from another work.)

There are some more advanced techniques that can be used to search the database, but I've found that the techniques above are all you usually need to know.

This should give a basic rundown of how to use the Library of Congress copyright database. You may also be interested in the Library of Congress' Web-based card catalog, which can be useful for researching a book's publication history. For more information on searching the Copyright Office's online records, see their tutorial.


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