Asking works but...
It never fails. The Legal Genealogist puts the finishing touches on a blog post, checks (sometimes at least) for spelling mistakes, hits the post button… and somebody has a question.
And it happened yesterday with the post Checking for renewals.
Almost as soon as the post went live, suggesting four different ways of checking to see if a copyright had been renewed back in the time period when it was necessary to register and then renew a copyright, reader Sandra Johnson popped in with a question that coulda-woulda-shoulda been included in the post.
She asked: “Can we check with the publisher? Or the author?”
And, of course, the answer is…
On at least four things, in this case.
First, you have to be able to identify the publisher and/or the author. The publishing house may have been acquired, and then reacquired, and then re-reacquired, as the number of publishers has shrunk through mergers and acquisitions. The author may have chosen to use a pseudonym or a pen name that he or she doesn’t go by today, and may no longer be in contact with the publishing house at all.
Second, you have to be able to find the publisher and/or the author. That may be relatively easy for a publishing house called the Bltzlplk Publishing Company — how many of those can there be? — but it may not be the easiest task in the world for an author named Jane Smith. Especially if that’s not her real name.
Third, you have to be able to rely on the publisher and/or the author, to respond to your inquiry at all. There’s not a lot of economic incentive for a publisher to answer an inquiry from someone asking if a work is still in copyright, and an author who transferred his copyright to the publisher may not bother replying either. Let’s face it: it’s your responsibility to find out if a work is copyright-protected, and not getting an answer after writing a letter isn’t going to get you off the hook for copyright infringement.
And fourth, you have to be able to trust any response you get from the publisher and/or the author. There’s always the possibility that either publisher or author might simply take the easy way out and tell you the item is copyright-protected when, in fact, it isn’t any more. Or that some clerk in an office will tell you it isn’t copyright-protected when, in fact, it is.
So the bottom line here is… yes, you can ask either publisher or author or both about the copyright status of a work.
But, as with all genealogical research, we’re better off doing our own checking … in original sources, with primary information.
Anything else is … well… rolling the dice.