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Copyright status

Reader Lexi has a great question about using materials that were copyrighted, but might not still be copyright-protected today.

Her particular reason for asking the question is that she teaches art to children, has a book of children’s poems she’d like to use in her classes and have the children do artwork to illustrate the poems. And then, she hopes, she can put the artwork and the poems together into a book and sell it as a fundraiser for her school.

It’s a great idea — but will it be a copyright problem since the book was published in 1953?

cstatusLexi notes, correctly, that materials published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 had to have a copyright notice in the publication and were then copyright-protected for a term of 28 years.1 But that initial copyright term could be renewed for a second period — originally 28 years under the Copyright Act of 19092 and then changed by statute, first to 47 years3 and then to 67 years.4

If the copyright was not renewed as the law then required, then the copyright on a book published in 1953 would have expired at the end of the 28th year of the initial copyright protection term5 or 31 December 1981. But if the copyright was renewed in that 28th year, the total copyright term for the work is 95 years (28 years plus 67 years), and the work will be copyright-protected until 31 December 2048.

Now the odds are pretty good that any given copyright won’t have been renewed. The Copyright Office reported that, as of 1960, copyright renewal rates for books were roughly seven percent and for periodicals about 11 percent.6 But playing the odds isn’t a safe bet when the consequences of copyright infringement can include statutory damages of up to $30,000 for a single violation.7

So… how do you know if a copyright was renewed or not? While the question here is focused on poetry, it’s a question we often encounter as genealogists when we try to figure out if we can use material created by others as part of our own publications — our genealogy society journals, our family histories, even blogs like this one.

And there are at least four options for getting an answer.

The first, and most expensive but most reliable, is to go yourself or pay somebody to check the records of the U.S. Copyright Office. The renewal records are kept at Copyright Office at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The office is open Monday—Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., eastern time.8 You can even get the Copyright Office to do the research for you, but there is a fee — and it’s hefty (a minimum of two hours at $200 an hour).9

Second, you can find a library that has the Copyright Office’s publication, the Catalog of Copyright Entries, issued in printed format from 1891 through 1978 and in microfiche from 1979 through 1982.10 The hitch with the CCE is that it won’t show assignments of rights, so if the item you want is still copyrighted, you’ll still need to do more research to be sure who owns the rights today.11

Third, you can check for online versions of the CCE. One major collection is at Internet Archive, with 674 entries (some of which, of course, are duplicates), and another is on The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania, with most if not all of the digitized records of both registrations and renewals accessible from one entry portal.

And finally you can check the searchable database prepared by Stanford University from the Project Gutenberg transcriptions and other records. The big advantage to this database is that it only includes renewals.

All of the online records, of course, have the potential for error. Stanford, for example, reported that its error rate was “less than 1%,” but cautioned that “in practice there is significant opportunity for user error or other problems in searching.”12 Using all of the online methods, however, should reduce the chances for making a mistake and, if the stakes are high enough, paying the Copyright Office for a search to be sure is the way to go.

For more background on checking the copyright status of a work, you should also download and read the Copyright Office’s Circular 22, How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work and the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page has a nice overview: “How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?


  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 15a: Duration of Copyright, PDF version at p. 2 ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
  2. §23, “An Act To amend and consolidate the Acts respecting copyright,” 35 Stat. 1075, 1080 (4 Mar 1909).
  3. Copyright Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2541 (19 Oct 1976).
  4. Copyright Term Extension Act, 112 Stat. 2827 (27 Oct 1998).
  5. Copyrights expire on 31 December of the last year of their term. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 15a: Duration of Copyright, PDF version at p. 2.
  6. Barbara A. Ringer, Renewal of Copyright (June 1960), in Copyright Law Revision: Studies Prepared for the (Senate Judiciary Committee), Studies 29-31, 86th Congress, 2d Session (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1961), 220.
  7. 17 U.S.C. §504(c)(1).
  8. See “Hours of Service and Location,” U.S. Copyright Office ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
  9. See ibid., “Fees.”
  10. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, PDF version at pp. 1-2 ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
  11. Ibid., at 2.
  12. Welcome,” Copyright Renewal Database, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
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