US law regarding duration of copyrights for works published before 1978 states that copyright runs for a fixed period of time "from the date it was originally secured". In general, publication has often been considered the time at which either copyright was secured or a work fell into the public domain. However, in Twin Books v. Walt Disney Co. (83 F. 3d 1162), the Ninth Circuit in 1996 held that the copyright to Bambi had not actually been secured until 1926, even though the work was first published in 1923, in Germany. (See the text of the decision, courtesy FindLaw.com.) In the court's opinion, Bambi's US copyright commenced at the time it was first published with a copyright notice recognized by US law.
Note that Bambi got this copyright reprieve only because it had not been published in the US prior to that time. Any publication in the US would have either commenced copyright (if there were proper notice), or thrown the work into the public domain (if there were not proper notice).
One possible implication of this decision is that, in the Ninth Circuit at least, certain works published before 1924 may still be copyrighted. If they are, they are only copyrighted if all of the conditions below apply:
All of this is rather complicated, as you can see, and rests on the assumptions that the Ninth Circuit ruling is good law, and that the GATT restorations don't push back copyright before the first US publication. The Ninth Circuit ruling is controversial, and other courts have ruled differently on similar questions concerning the copyrights of foreign authors. And to the best of my knowledge, no US court (either inside or outside the Ninth Circuit) has actually ruled that any work published before 1925 is still copyrighted.
Given all of this, for the purposes of listings on The Online Books Page, I will still consider any book published before 1925 to be in the public domain in the US. However, if you're especially careful about copyright issues, you may want to be aware of the ruling above and its possible implications, when you put books online.
Thanks to Stephen Fishman for first informing me of this issue. Any errors in the analysis above, however, are solely mine. Readers should keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and should not be relied on for legal advice. For more information on copyright term and the public domain in the US, see Peter Hirtle's summary at Cornell's Copyright Information Center.
John Mark Ockerbloom, Editor
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