Select Page

Copyright-to-public domain

Reader Jim H. was really hopeful. He has a reference source he would like to quote at length or republish large portions from and knows that it was published on or about March 1, 1924.

And, he hoped, because materials published in the United States are transferred into the public domain 95 years after publication, he would be able to republish the work now, since 95 years have passed.

Um… not yet.

In copyright-statute-terms, the 95 years aren’t over yet.


Here’s the story:

When the copyright statute was revised in 1976, effective as of 1 January 1978, anything legally published in the United States before 1 January 1978 was entitled to copyright protection for 75 years — an initial term of 28 years and an extension of 47 years.1 So, for example, something published in 1922 as to which the copyright had been extended would enter the public domain and be free for us to use as we wish2 in 1997.

In 1998, however, that section was amended to add yet another 20 years to the copyright term — and that stopped the copyright clock from running.3 As a result, anything published before 1923 was in the public domain as of 1998 — but nothing published in or after 1923 would enter the public domain until 2019.

Fortunately, Congress did not change the public-domain clock again, and on 1 January 2019, everything legally published in the United States in 1923 did enter the public domain.4

So… why isn’t Jim’s reference source, published 95 years and however many days ago, in the public domain now since March 1 marked its publication 95 years ago?

Because the trigger date for the expiration of copyright is the end of the calendar year.

Section 305 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §305, provides that “All terms of copyright … run to the end of the calendar year in which they would otherwise expire.”

So that reference work, published in March 1924, gets protection to the end of this calendar year, and won’t enter the public domain until 1 January 2020.

Patience, Jim. You just have to wait another six months and a few days.

Because copyright-to-public domain is an annual thing.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Copyright: an annual thing,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 17 June 2019).


  1. §304, Copyright Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2541, 2575-2576 (19 Oct 1976).
  2. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Where is the public domain?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Dec 2015 ( : accessed 17 June 2019).
  3. Copyright Term Extension Act, 112 Stat. 2827 (27 Oct 1998).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Welcome to 1923!!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 Jan 2019.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email