The other day when I offered an explanation for why I spend so much time here transcribing other peoples’ work, usually long-forgotten genealogies and histories published a hundred years ago or so, Jasia of Creative Gene had some questions about copyright law and what we can safely post in this way. I have to be careful here: I am not giving you or anyone else legal advice. What I am about to offer is a summary of the general state of the law; how your particular situation meshes with that law I cannot say. If you have any questions about how your particular situation meshes with copyright law, go ask an attorney of your own.
Here is what the U.S. Copyright Office says on their website:
“Works Originally Created and Published or Registered before January 1, 1978
Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright was secured either on the date a work was published with a copyright notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright endured for a first term of 28 years from the date it was secured. During the last (28th) year of the first term, the copyright was eligible for renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights that were subsisting on January 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years. Public Law 105-298, enacted on October 27, 1998, further extended the renewal term of copyrights still subsisting on that date by an additional 20 years, providing for a renewal term of 67 years and a total term of protection of 95 years.
Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, amended the 1976 Copyright Act to provide for automatic renewal of the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically provided, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal certificate for these works unless a renewal application and fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office.
Public Law 102-307 makes renewal registration optional. Thus, filing for renewal registration is no longer required to extend the original 28-year copyright term to the full 95 years. However, some benefits accrue to renewal registrations that were made during the 28th year.”
In other words, if the publication you are working from is old, it used to be that the copyright expired after 28 years. The author had the option of renewing it if he or she wanted to. In 1992, the rules changed: copyrights secured from 1964 and 1997 were automatically renewed, and the many of the original 28-year terms were automatically extended to 95 years.
So what does all this mean? Some people say that working with this kind of law is about risk management. To minimize the risk that someone gets upset with you about the use of copyrighted material, the first and foremost rule is to use proper attribution. Give the author full credit. The next layer of protection is to stick with works that are 95 years old or older. That takes you back to about 1912 at the moment. For works more recent than that, you are playing the odds a bit. There are no “copyright cops” out there: it falls to the copyright holder to protect his or her work. The odds suggest that the closer a work is to having been published pre-1912, the more obscure the work is, and the smaller your selection from that work, the less likely it is that the copyright holder will enforce the copyright. I myself have, for example, excerpted here, with full attribution, pieces from a 1922 work. If I felt inclined to excerpt something more recent, or more popularly known, or in larger chunks that a few pages, I would either not post that material, or I would, with due diligence, try to get permission from somebody in authority.
But that’s just what I do. I am sure that other people look at these things differently, so do not rely on anything you read here. If you have questions about this topic, and you would be wise to, seek out answers of your own.