Copyright on 1942 Documents
May 13, 2016 2:01 PM   Subscribe

In the course of archival research, I've come across transcriptions and author's notes of some remarks that were given during a private conference in 1942. I'm having trouble sorting out the 1909 and 1976 Copyright Acts and how they impact these documents. Are they in the public domain, or are they still under copyright?
posted by NotMyselfRightNow to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
 
There isn't enough information in your question to answer this, but this chart might help you sort things out.

Of particular interest is whether/when the documents were published. In one of US copyright law's many nonintuitive wrinkles, it is more likely that they are in the public domain if they had been published before 1978.

If they were published, then it's also a question of whether they were marked appropriately, and then whether the copyright on them was renewed.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:12 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


They've never been published. The organizer of the conference put copies in his files back in 1942, and from what I can tell, they've never seen the light of day.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:15 PM on May 13, 2016


What do you want to do with them? If you want quote from them in a published work, I think you'd want to get permission from the conference.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:21 PM on May 13, 2016


Copyright in 1942 was covered by the Copyright Act of 1909 which required publication and a copyright notice to secure a valid copyright, so if the works are unpublished, they would be in the public domain by now, Federally speaking. Unpublished works may have been covered by state laws, but it is very likely that any protection would have expired by now.
posted by kindall at 2:22 PM on May 13, 2016


Copyright in 1942 was covered by the Copyright Act of 1909 which required publication and a copyright notice to secure a valid copyright, so if the works are unpublished, they would be in the public domain by now, Federally speaking.

This is incorrect.

The Copyright Act of 1976 granted Life of the Author + 50 years of protection to works created but not published before 1978. (17 USC section 303)

The Sonny Bono Act of 1998 made it Life of the Author + 70 years.

Here is the current version of 17 U.S.C. Section 303.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:30 PM on May 13, 2016


The 1976 Act supersedes the earlier ones; work created in 1942 is not governed by the Act of 1909. So under the 1976 Act and the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, this falls into the bucket of "created before 1/1/78 but not published, in which case, the author and his or her heirs owns the copyright for Life + 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is greater. So, unless the author died before May 13, 1946 (today minus 70 years), their copyright has not expired.
posted by beagle at 2:33 PM on May 13, 2016


sparklemotion, beagle - Thanks, that's what I was looking for, and you both touched on the confusion I was having looking at the two Acts and trying to sort it out.

Also, US copyright law is f'ing absurd. Grumble, grumble...
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:36 PM on May 13, 2016


Also: if the author, or the author's death date, is unknown, then the copyright term on unpublished works extends for 120 years from the creation date of the work. (So your estate is better off if you go and disappear before you die.)
posted by beagle at 2:42 PM on May 13, 2016


So, unless the author died before May 13, 1946 (today minus 70 years), their copyright has not expired.

Another wrinkle, for precision - copyright terms end on December 31st of the year that they expire. So the author would have had to have died before December 31st 1945 for the copyright to be expired.

Depending on what you plan to do with these documents, you may want to also consider that there are also potential wrinkles regarding who (if anyone) owns the copyright in the *transcription*of the speech (depending on stuff like did the speaker give permission for the transcription, did the speaker speak extemporaneously, or from a prepared document, etc, etc.)

US Copyright law is way more confusing than it has any right to be, don't feel bad for being stumped. Various caveats regarding consulting *your* copyright lawyer before making any decisions, etc. apply.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:43 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Nope. The 1976 copyright act did not grant "life of the author plus 50 years" to already copyrighted works. If an extension had already been filed, the extension became worth 47 years instead of 28. However, in this case, the work was never even published, let alone had its copyright extended. Sorry, those notes becase public domain in 1960 at the latest.
posted by kindall at 3:40 PM on May 13, 2016


In fact the 1976 Copyright Act explicitly states that it does not provide any copyright protection for works that entered the public domain before January 1, 1978.
posted by kindall at 3:47 PM on May 13, 2016


Before the 1976 act, a work could become part of the public domain only by a.) the copyright expiring, or b.) being published without appropriate notice. Similarly, a work would only get copyright protection by being published with appropriate notice.

Therefore, unpublished works were in a limbo, where they weren't in the public domain, nor were they protected by copyright. Authors or other in possession of those works had to be very careful when they were published in order to ensure that copyright protection would accrue. When 17 USC 303 was enacted in 1976, it gave those works copyright protection (and associated expiry) for the first time.

If what you say is true, kindall, there would be no purpose for 17 USC 303.
posted by sparklemotion at 3:54 PM on May 13, 2016


the Center for New Media Rights (newmediarights.org) can probably help you sort this.
posted by listen, lady at 6:26 PM on May 13, 2016


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