This document describes a step-by-step process of answering questions to determine whether one can consider US serial material (such as newspapers, magazines, journals, and similar publications) to be in the public domain or under copyright. It was last revised January 7, 2021.
Please see the credits, disclaimers, and license at the end of this document before making use of it. You may find the document's glossary of terms helpful in understanding the process described here. Information on rights you may have for using serial material still under copyright can be found in Appendix E.
How to tell: Serial issues originally published in the US can be considered US publications. An issue's original place of publication will usually be noted in its masthead. If not, place of publication may be noted in the serial's catalog entry in WorldCat or another suitable library catalog. (See [note 1] for why US publication is important, and for information on other publications an adventurous and legally savvy organization might also consider as US publications.)
Most serials you will encounter were published. However, serial issues that were kept private might not qualify as publications. For instance, a hand-written or typed serial that only seems to exist in someone's archived personal papers might not have been published, as might a serial issue printed with something like "Dummy issue: For internal use only". See [note 2] for more details.
This question usually needs to be answered only once per serial.
How to tell: Look for publication dates on the issue, or if there is no such date on the issue, look up the issue in WorldCat or another suitable library catalog.
Dates should generally be checked for each serial issue of interest. For some serials, the issue of interest may be an entire volume. If you wish to evaluate a multi-issue volume, for this question consider the date of the latest issue in the volume.
After 2021, see [note 3] for additional years that you could determine qualify an issue for the public domain.
Some government-produced serials may be in the public domain even after March 1989. See [note 4] for more details.
How to tell: Examine sample volumes or issues of the serial to see how issue dates and titles are represented, and to see if the serial title or contents suggest a law reporter or other legal serial. If the serial is mentioned in the first renewals inventory, there might also be a link to a copyright information page that might answer these questions.
The first renewals inventory can be found at https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/cce/firstperiod.html.
These questions usually need to be answered only once per serial.
How to tell: Examine sample volumes or issues of the serial. Usually only specialized types of serials regularly carry this sort of content, so this check usually needs to be done only once for a given serial. If the serial is mentioned in the first renewals inventory, there might also be a link to a copyright information page that might answer these questions.
How to tell: Look for a features or comics section of an issue, and see if there are any comics or columns that have syndicate credits or copyright notices, or are from sources you know to have been nationally famous (e.g. Disney, Tarzan, DC/National Comics, Marvel, King Features or United Feature Syndicate.)
This question can usually be answered for a serial as a whole after checking a few early and late issues in the set of issues of interest. Some small or special-interest newspapers did not run syndicated content, but larger general-interest newspapers often did, and may have picked up more syndicated content over time.
How to tell: The nature of the serial often is a strong indication of whether or not it includes reprints. Scholarly journals disseminate original research, and generally do not reprint previously published material (except for quotations in research articles, which are often fair use). Similarly, specialty or local publications are often all-original. Popular magazines may sometimes include reprinted or condensed articles or stories. Periodicals with "Digest" or "The Best..." in their title often include reprints or condensations of previously published material.
A reprint may be noted at the start of the relevant article or story, or noted in the table of contents or issue credits. In addition, periodicals mentioned in the first renewals inventory may link to copyright information pages that link to table of contents databases. Some of those contents databases note reprints and original sources of articles and stories, when known.
How to tell: On a sample issue of interest, check to see if copyright or reprint notices accompany images in the text, either as an image caption, or in image credits at the start or end of the issue. Images without such notices are not likely to carry copyrights separate from that of the issue they appear in.
This question can usually be answered with spot-checks on a small number of serial issues of interest. If some of the issues have such images, one might need to check more issues.
How to tell: Look for the serial's copyright information page, linked from its title in the first renewals inventory. (If there is no page linked from there, assume that not all active renewals are mentioned, and continue to question 9d.) If there is a page, see if it has a listing of issue renewals that is said to include "all active renewals" or "all active renewals prior to 1964" (or all active renewals through a year at least as recent as the year of the issue of interest), or if it states that there were "no issue renewals found".
Then, see if the information page has a listing of contribution renewals with similar characteristics.
If you see these indicators for issues and contributions, then all relevant renewals should be mentioned on the page.
How to tell: See Appendix A: The registered works database for information on how to search that database.
How to tell: See Appendix B: The Catalog of Copyright Entries for information on how to search that collection. Since this can be a difficult or time-consuming process for some periodicals, you might for simplicity assume that issues after the first issue with a renewal also have a renewal. This is not always the case, however.
How to tell: A valid copyright notice consists of the word "Copyright" (or the © symbol, or the abbreviation "Copr."), accompanied by a year and the name of the copyright claimant. The copyright notice for a periodical issue generally goes on the cover (front or back), the masthead page, the title page (if any) or the page after that, the table of contents page, or an early page that prominently identifies the periodical and the issue. In some cases, copyright notices for individual contributions appear with the contributions, or in a separate Credits section.
Most commercial publications have copyright notices (so for a popular publication, you can assume a YES answer if checking individual issues would be too much trouble). However, noncommercial or informal publications, including newsletters, bulletins, and academic 'gray literature', often lack copyright notices. If you are interested in a run of issues of such serials, it may be sufficient to check for notices on selected early and late issues in the run.
If you are not sure your copy of an issue includes all of its original pages, you may want to assume the issue had a copyright notice.
How to tell: At the very least, if you have not already done so for this serial, see if the first renewals inventory has a link to a copyright information page for it. Some pages may include notes about unusual copyright circumstances related to this serial. Check to see if those notes suggest possible persistence of copyright for the issue of interest.
The Copyright Office's online registered works database (also known as the Copyright Public Records Catalog) includes all registrations (including renewals) filed from 1978 onward. Renewals for any copyrights from 1951 onward will be in this database. Renewals for 1950 copyrights might be in this database, or they might be in the Catalog of Copyright Entries. (See Appendix B: The Catalog of Copyright Entries for information on how to effectively search that work.)
Renewal records associated with a particular serial are indexed under the name of that serial. To find such records, you can enter the name of the serial in the "Search for" box at cocatalog.loc.gov. The "Search by" choice should ordinarily be set for "Title (omit initial article, A, An, The, El, La Das etc.)", and you should omit any such articles at the start of the periodical's title. For example, to search for renewals associated with The American Historical Review, enter
american historical review
You should also search for any variant names the serial might have had. In some cases, it might be better to select the "Command Keyword" option (different from the "Keyword" option) and enter keywords from the serial's title or claimant in the "Search for" box with "AND" between each word. For example,
communications AND computing AND machinery AND association
should return records associated with titles like "Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery" as well as "Association for Computing Machinery. Communications". It will also turn up records for any title containing "Communications" (such as "Communications of the A C M") where the Assocation for Computing Machinery is mentioned in the record.
The catalog will display listings of records that match your search criteria in batches of 25. For some common words and titles, more than 10,000 records may match your search criteria, but the system will cut off results after the first 10,000. To ensure you do not miss any relevant records in such cases, you might need to use a Command Keyword search that includes not only keywords from the title or claimant, but also the year of the issue you are interested in. For example, a search on "Time" by itself will trigger the 10,000-record cutoff, but a Command Keyword search on
time AND 1954
will return a manageable (if still large) number of records. Alternatively, if you want to look at renewals for a large number of years, you can use the "Set Search Limits" button in the public catalog interface and select "Serials" under "Item Type" on the next screen to limit search results to records involving serials.
The listings will be displayed in a table that may include columns for "Title", "Full Title", "Copyright Number", and "Date". (In some cases, the "Title" column may be omitted.) The records may include original registrations, renewals, ownership transfers, and other types of registration. Renewal records will have Copyright Numbers that start with "RE0". It may be useful to sort results by date. (In the pull-down menu near the "Resort results by:" instruction, select "Date (ascending)".) When results are sorted by date, renewals will often appear first. You should look for renewals both under the year of the issue of interest, and under the 27th and 28th year following. (Renewals for individual issues are often sorted into the year of the issue; however, group renewals, which are common for contributions, are often sorted into the year that the renewals were filed.)
The Catalog of Copyright Entries (or CCE) includes records for copyright registrations (including renewals) through 1977. Renewals for copyrights before 1950 should be recorded in the CCE. Renewals for 1950 copyrights might be in the CCE, or in the registered works database. (See Appendix A: The registered works database for information on how to effectively search that database.)
A valid renewal for a periodical issue would be filed 27 or 28 years after the periodical was published. Note that a periodical's date of publication (which is also generally its copyright date) often precedes its issue date, and might be in the previous year for issues published around the turn of a year. For instance, a magazine issue dated 'January 1944' might have been been sent to subscribers and newsstands in December or even November of 1943. Such an issue would have been properly renewed 27 or 28 years after its actual 1943 publication, that is, in 1970 or 1971.
Issue renewal records can be generally be found in the Periodicals volumes ("Part 2") of the Catalog of Copyright Entries. Digital copies of those volumes are linked from The Online Books Page's "Copyright Registration and Renewal Records" page at https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/cce/. Find the Periodicals volumes for 27 and 28 years after the publication year of the issue of interest to you. The renewals for years where copyright still applies are listed in a section near the end of each volume, in alphabetical order by periodical title.
Sometimes, particularly by the 1970s, the Catalog of Copyright Entries fell behind the pace of renewal filings. You therefore might also need to look at the year of publication plus 29 years to be sure of finding your filing. (Note that there are 1978 Catalog of Copyright Entries volumes that include, among other things, registrations filed before 1978 that did not make it into previous volumes.)
Renewals for periodical contributions (such as stories and articles) are not filed in the Periodicals volumes, but are filed in volumes for Contributions to Periodicals. The January-June 1953 Catalog of Copyright Entries puts Contributions to Periodicals renewals in "Part 1B". This Part 1B volume is available online only in page image form, but the contribution renewals recorded in it are now represented on the copyright information pages for the relevant serials.
The July-December 1953 and later Catalog of Copyright Entries put these renewals in "Part 1" interfiled with Books renewals. These volumes have been transcribed and posted by Project Gutenberg. A file with transcriptions of all of those interfiled volumes up to 1977 can be downloaded as Project Gutenberg etext #11800. (The renewal backlog in the 1978 volume is transcribed in Project Gutenberg etext #51672.)
Here, then, is where you should check for renewals of periodical contribution copyrights from various years:
If you find relevant renewals for a serial, you might want to consider sending information about them to us, so that we can include them in the copyright information page for that serial, and so that others don't have to search for them again.
Very few images from the early-to-mid 20th century have had their copyrights independently renewed. In 1952, only about 200 copyright renewals were recorded for images; in 1977, only 530 such renewals were filed. Most images that were published before 1964 that are still under copyright have that status due to renewal of the publication in which they first appeared, not due to independent renewal of the image itself.
Images with a copyright separate from that of the serial they appear in are often published with a copyright notice of their own in an image caption or in a photo credits section. If a credit associates the image with another publication (e.g. "Photo courtesy the New York Times") then check renewals for that other publication.
Otherwise, if you find a copyright notice or special credit for a particular image, it might be worth checking for copyright renewals in the eligible years. This can be time-consuming, particularly for multiple images. The eligible years would be 27 or 28 years after the original publication or copyright, as we discuss in Appendix B: The Catalog of Copyright Entries. Images (including art and photographs) are registered as "Artwork" in that catalog. If there are a large number of images to potentially check, it might be worthwhile to simply read through the Artwork image renewals in the applicable years (which can be found in Parts 7-11A of the Catalog of Copyright Entries) and see if any of the images mentioned are likely to have appeared in the serial. In many cases, few if any of the renewed images were intended for periodical publication. (One notable exception: many publicity photographs of the Dionne quintuplets were syndicated to periodicals in the mid-1930s and had their copyrights renewed in the mid-1960s.)
If you only need to check a small number of images, and you know their creators, copyright claimants, or titles (if any), it may be feasible to check them individually. The best way to do that depends on when the images were copyrighted. Here are our recommendations:
Syndication of newspaper features (such as comic strips and columns) was increasingly common in the 20th century. Syndicates varied in size. Some syndicates were small-scale, serving a particular region or demographic. Material distributed by syndicates associated with a particular newspaper can generally be considered renewed if the syndicate's origin newspaper was renewed. Two such syndicates were the Des Moines Register and Tribune syndicate (carrying features listed in part in this Wikipedia article) and the Chicago Tribune syndicate (carrying features listed in part in this Wikipedia article).
Some syndicates, or their features, were distributed nationally. Some of them renewed copyrights regularly beginning from the 1930s, so their material is likely to still be under copyright, and be present in many larger general-interest newspapers not specifically mentioned in the copyright renewal notices. Among the more notable such features and syndicates:
If you are interested in serials that contain any of this syndicated content, or other content you can't easily clear, see Appendix E: Use of uncleared copyrighted materials below.
It may still be worthwhile to digitize serial issues that include copyrighted materials, particularly if the print copies are rare or at risk of loss or deterioration. In cases involving HathiTrust and Google Books, US courts have ruled that their digitizations of complete copyrighted books were fair use when done for purposes such as access for readers with disabilities and searching. (They did not rule that open display to the general public was generally allowed, though.)
In a similar manner, other organizations may be able to legally digitize serial issues that may still be under copyright or include copyrighted material. They may wait until the issues are in the public domain to display and distribute the digital copies. Or they may suppress display of copyrighted portions of a serial issue while displaying public domain portions. In some cases, copyright law might allow some organizations such as libraries to display full serial issues even when some or all of their content is copyrighted. Organizations considering this should discuss the possibilities and risks with qualified legal counsel. Some of the provisions of copyright law they might wish to discuss include:
Libraries may also want to discuss with counsel whether Controlled Digital Lending by Libraries of copyrighted periodical issues they own would be appropriate. (The link here goes to a website authored by legal experts at various academic libraries arguing for its legality. There are, however, ongoing legal battles over it, including a lawsuit filed in June 2020 by a group of publishers against the Internet Archive over its implementation of Controlled Digital Lending. As of early January 2021, the court in the suit had not ruled on whether and when Controlled Digital Lending was legal.)
Non-US publications may be exempt from requirements this decision document assumes for registrations, renewals, and copyright notices. In particular, they might have restored copyrights under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, as described in the Copyright Office's Circular 38b, "Copyright Restoration Under the URAA", available at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38b.pdf. In some cases, non-US publications might also have copyrights of indefinite length, due to uncertainty about when the US copyright term starts.
A publication originating outside the US might in some cases still be considered a US publication for purposes of copyright law, if the publisher was generally distributing copies to US readers or resellers within 30 days of first publication abroad. Signs of such distribution might include advertisements of subscription rates for the US or in US dollars, mentions of US second class postage registration, or mentions of multiple publisher locations that include US cities. Consult with counsel to see if any of these indicators, or others, would be suitable grounds for deeming a foreign-origin serial a publication subject to the copyright requirements for US publications. For more information on publication and general copyright issues, see the Copyright Office's Circular 1, "Copyright Basics", available at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf. [Return to section 1]
As of 2021, 1926 is the year of the oldest active copyrights for US publications that are not sound recordings. If copyright laws do not change before the end of 2021, on January 1, 2022 the date of the oldest such copyrights will change from 1926 to 1927. It will continue to advance by one year every successive January 1 (e.g. to 1928 on January 1, 2023, to 1929 on January 1, 2024, etc.) until 2072, barring changes in copyright law made after the date of this document. [Return to section 2]
Copyright might not apply to certain government works, including government-produced serials, published at any time, including after 1989. Not everything published by the government is an uncopyrightable government work, however. (For instance, a government serial issue might include copyrighted contributions by private citizens.) For more information about US federal government works not under copyright, see the U. S. Government Works information page on usa.gov. For information on copyrights that might or might not apply to works of state governments, see Harvard's State Copyright Resource Center. [Return to section 2]
Guidance for doing book copyright clearances is outside the scope of this document, but can be found in other sources. (See, for instance, Finding the Public Domain: Copyright Review Management System Toolkit for more information on how HathiTrust and similar organizations clear book copyrights. Your book copyright searches should include searches on the distinct issue title, if there is one.) [Return to section 3]
Some works that were accidentally published without a copyright notice between 1978 and 1989 could still secure copyright if a registration was made in a timely fashion. For more details, see the Copyright Office's Circular 3, "Copyright Notice", available at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf. We are not sure if any significant number of publications were belatedly brought into copyright by this route, but since looking up a registration in the registered works database to answer question 10(b) may be quicker than searching for a copyright notice on the actual item in question 10(c), it may be worth doing this check even for works published in 1978 or later with a copyright notice. [Return to section 10]
Additional definitions of bibliographic and library-related terms can be found in Davidson University's Glossary of Library Terms. Additional definitions of legal terms can be found in A Glossary of Terms for First Year Students from George Mason University's law school library. The Copyright Office also has a list of US Copyright Office Definitions that may be helpful in interpreting their records.
This guide "Determining Copyright Status of Serial Issues" was prepared by John Mark Ockerbloom with financial support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to the University of Pennsylvania. The author (and not the University of Pennsylvania, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, or any of the people thanked below) is solely responsible for the content, and for any errors or omissions in the content. The guide is not, and is not intended to be, legal advice. Because copyright protection, and the rights of others to make certain uses of serial issues under copyright, are very fact-specific, you are encouraged to seek legal advice regarding any particular serial issue, particular use, or particular legal question you may have.
The author thanks Mary Mark Ockerbloom, Alison Miner, Jacob Levernier, Justin Bonfiglio, Melissa Levine, Jonathan Band, Robert Firestone, and Robert Terrell for their helpful suggestions on drafts of this document.
This guide is licensed CC-BY. We encourage people to share, reuse and adapt it as they see fit, with appropriate guidance from counsel. In derivative works or external copies, appropriate credit should mention the author (John Mark Ockerbloom), cite (and where feasible, link to) this document, and note the date when material from it was copied or adapted.