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Copyright and Genealogists

U.S. Copyright Law as Applied to Books

The following information provides a brief summary of United States copyright laws as they may apply to books of interest to genealogists and other researchers. This information is not intended as, nor should it be used in place of legal advise concerning copyright or other laws, rules, or regulations. You are encouraged to use the links provided below to the Library of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office, to research the laws and regulations yourself. If you have questions concerning this, or other legal issues, you should consult your own legal counsel.

Prior to January 1, 1978, all published works fell under the U.S. Copyright Law of 1908, which had been amended numerous times. Under the law, "published works" were entitled to protection for an initial term of 28 years, with an option to renew for an additional 47 years - a total of 75 years. However, in 1978, the entire body of copyright law in the United States was rewritten, and confusion has reigned ever since . . ..

The current rule of thumb is works first published before 1923, now fall into the public domain. Works "first published" in the United States between 1964 and 1977 are protected for 95 years from the date of first publication, and there is no renewal.

Any "work created" since 1978, is protected for 70 years after the death of the author. Unlike all previous statutes, the new law does not required the work to be published!"

The real quandry lies in the copyright status of any work published between 1923 and 1963, and it is often difficult to determine. During this period, the original registration required a renewal during its final (28th) year of protection, and extended protectection for an additional 47 years. If no renewal was submitted, copyright protection ended upon the expiration of the original 28 years.

Another Reminder! This only applies to books published in the United States. The laws for non-book items and foreign publications are covered under different statutes. Nor does this apply to unpublished works created before 1978.

The Library of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office administers and regulates copyright law in the United States. The links below discuss at length, the legal issues involved in genealogy and the current copyright laws. This is an area of the law that has changed considerably in recent years. Do you know if you can excerpt a paragraph from that book that talks about your grandparents? Be careful with your answer! Read on . . .

 Stanford University's Copyright Renewal Database 1950 to 1993 copyright renewals recorded by the U.S. Copyright Office for books first published in the United States between 1923 and 1963.

 Search the Copyright Office registrations and ownership documents since 1978

 The United States Copyright Office

 How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work (Circular 22) from the U.S. Copyright Office

 More Circulars and Factsheets from the Copyright Office

 Citing Electronic Sources

 APG Copyright Resources

 Library of Congress on Copyright

 False Claims to Copyright Protection


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Last updated: 12 Jul 2010