The following dates apply to the USA only. We're concentrating on the USA as this has the most creative works available in the Public Domain. We'll come to the UK later on.
• DECEMBER 31st 1922
• 1st JANUARY 1923 – 31st DECEMBER 1963
• IMPORTANT NUMBERS: 28, 67 (or 95)
Anything published in the USA before 1923 ie up to December. 31st 1922, is in the public domain – period! Whatever it is, be it book, photo, painting, music * it does not matter – it's in the Public Domain which means you can do whatever you want with it.
* Actually only sheet music or song lyrics can be in the Public Domain in the USA – ALL music in the form of sound recordings are under copyright until at least 2067. However there is a way to download certain recordings and we'll cover those in another post which will also cover where to find them.
31st Jan. 1923 – 31st Dec. 1963 – Anything published between these two dates automatically came with a 28 year copyright. However if the copyright was NOT renewed in the 28th year then the work fell into the Public Domain. If it was renewed then the copyright extended for another 67 years or 95 years from first being published.
Example: If a work was published in 1930 and the copyright was renewed in 1958 then the copyright would not run out until 2025 (1958 + 67 years = 2025) The other calculation is to add 95 onto the year of publication which is in this case means 1930 + 95 = 2025. It just depends on whichever method you feel comfortable with.
Appropriately between 85% – 93% of all creative works published between these two dates NEVER had the copyright renewed. This means there is a vast ocean of in the available material for you to access and use in whichever way you want.
What about works published from 1964 onwards you might ask? Well from 1964 – 1977 copyright is automatically 95 years from date of publication which means it'll be 2059 before any of that material is in the Public Domain so it really is not relevant if, like me, you're in your 50's already !
This also applies to works published from 1978 onwards despite the length of time of copyright varies between 70 – 120 years or 75 years after the death of the author / creator. Again this is irrelevant for our purposes.
IMPORTANT – In the UK creative works have a copyright until the end of the 70th year after the death of the author / creator. Note that it's the end of the 70th year – not the 70th anniversary of the author's death. So if the author died in JUNE 1930 their work would not be in the Public Domain in the UK until the 1st January 2001
Now it's also important to note that even if the work was published and in the Public Domain in one country it does not mean it's in the Public Domain in another. A good example here is PETER PAN written by JM Barrie.
This was written in 1920 and published in the UK then. It was also published in the USA in 1922 so technically it was in the Public Domain in the USA but NOT in the UK as the author was still alive! In fact he did not die until 1937 so Peter Pan would not normally come into the public domain in the UK until 2008.
However an amendment to the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act in the UK was passed to allow the copyright for Peter Pan to run indefinitely in the UK with all royalties being associated to the trustees of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, for as long as the hospital exists.
The book could have been sold by anyone if they stayed in the USA without fear of violation of copyright but not so in the UK.
So you now know what dates to look for when searching for a product that's in the Public Domain. They are very important so keep them close for reference.
It's also important to note that there is a lot of information published that does not have copyright. This applications to government publications as these are produced for the general public and paid for out of public funds and so can be used by the general public in any legal way.
There are easy ways to find out if a product is in the Public Domain, especially books which are the most popular product searched for, but we'll talk about those in another post.