Copyright and Historical Documents

Here’s a paradox of copyright law which fortunately we no longer need to worry about:

For completeness, there is one qualification that should be made. Section 303 of the 1976 Act brought under federal copyright protection previously unpublished works, including very old works (like letters of George Washington) that are in the public domain everywhere else in the world (because the life + 50 or even life + 70 year term has expired). (Is that harmonization–one of the false banners under which term extension was propounded?) It further provides that all of these old works will enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2003, unless they are published prior to that date. (If they are published before 2003, they are protected under the extension bill until 2047, even those that are in the public domain everywhere else!) One of the small victories in this sordid affair was effected by historians who convinced Congress not to extend the 2003 date to 2013. Consequently, we will have one more injection into the public domain prior to 2019, namely, very old works that have not been published before 2003. (There is an important lesson here for anyone interested in using these historical documents. DO NOT PUBLISH THEM IN ANY FORM PRIOR TO 2003, EVEN ON A WEB PAGE! If you do, you may create copyright problems for everyone else who wishes to use them until 2047.)

Let me use a concrete example: if an unpublished letter by Benjamin Franklin or play by Shakespeare were first published between 1978 and Jan 1 2003, the company who published it would own the copyright until the year 2047. (Look at this chart if you don’t believe me). Also, see my post on the Project Gutenburg forum for more details.

Two other things by : a “harmonization” chart (showing how copyright laws are not being harmonized between Europe and US). Great 7 page analysis of orphaned works (PDF)by Timothy R. Phillips.







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