Help:Beginner's guide to copyright

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Beginner's guide to copyright
How to check if a book is out of copyright.

Wikisource works under the copyright laws of the United States. This page should give a basic idea of the copyright status of a work under these laws. Only public domain or freely licensed works can be hosted by Wikisource.

This page is just a brief overview of copyright laws. It is not an authority on the law or Wikisource policy. Copyright status can be quite complicated, please refer to the linked pages for more detailed information.

This table gives a very rough breakdown of the possible copyright status of a work. It is based on the date the work was first published. There can be extra complications with the copyright to any work. For more information, please read the sections below and follow the links provided.

Quick reference[edit]

A lot of copyrights are based on the year the work was first published. These tables should help you to understand them:

Publication date Is it in the public domain?
Up to 31 December 1922(31 December 1922) Yes
1 January 1923(1 January 1923) to 31 December 1963(31 December 1963) Maybe
1 January 1964(1 January 1964) onwards Probably not
A table showing the state of copyright in the United States based on the date of publication and other factors

Before 1923[edit]

Almost all works published before 1923 are in the public domain in the United States of America.

(Unauthorised publications do not count, so if the first authorised publication was after 1922, the copyright of that edition should be used instead.)

Example licence templates
Case Template
If the author died more than 100 years ago. {{PD-old}}
If the author died in or after 1923 but the work was published before 1923. {{pd/1923|Year the author died}}

1923 to 1963[edit]

Works published during this period needed their copyrights to be renewed 27-28 years after publication. The renewal had to be registered in the 28th year, not before or after. Renewal in the 27th is very close and may be approved by courts, so this year counts as well on Wikisource.

If the author of a work died before the renewal years, the rights revert to their heirs and estate. In this case, the heirs must have renewed the copyright in the 27th or 28th year. This overrode any commitments or contracts the author may have made in life. If the work was a contribution to a periodical then the publisher no longer had any right to the work and cannot have renewed the copyright.

Example licence templates
Case Template
If the copyright was not renewed. {{PD-US-no-renewal|year the author died|year the work was published}}
If the work was published outside the US, did not comply with US law and it was public domain in its home country on 1996-01-01(1996-01-01). {{pd/1996|year the author died}}

After 1963[edit]

From 1 January 1964(1 January 1964) renewal was no longer necessary and the period of copyright is now 95 years after publication.

Before 1978, a work published without a correct copyright notice automatically entered the public domain. Works published between 1 January 1978(1 January 1978) and 1 March 1989(1 March 1989) had to have either a copyright notice on publication or have their copyright registered within five years of publication; if neither happened then the work automatically entered the public domain.

The author of a work published after 1963 may have voluntarily placed the work in the public domain or published it under a free licence such as Creative Commons. In these cases, Wikisource is free to host copies of the work.

Anything else is almost certainly still under copyright and cannot be hosted on Wikisource.

Example licence templates
Case Template
If the work was published without copyright notice or registration. {{PD-US-no-notice|year the author died}}
A common example of a Creative Commons licence {{CC-BY-SA-3.0}}

Why United States copyright law?[edit]

A photograph of a street in Ashburn, with a fire engine and fire fighters in teh foreground
Ashburn, Virginia

The computer on which Wikisource, and all the other Wikimedia projects, runs is located in Ashburn, Virginia in the United States. The charity that runs Wikimedia, the Wikimedia Foundation, is also based on the United States, in San Francisco, California. This means the the website as a whole, and all the texts it hosts, must obey the law of the United States. Even if you live outside the United States, it does not change the law that affects Wikisource and all of the works hosted by Wikisource.

Some other Wikisources and some other Wikimedia projects choose to respect non-United States copyright law. English Wikisource does not. Respecting just one set of copyright laws is the simplest system possible and even this can be very complicated at times.

Non-United States publications[edit]

The rules about non-United States publications can get complicated.

Some works may be in the public domain in the United States even if they are still under copyright in their home countries. Other works may be in the public domain in their home countries but still under copyright in the United States.

For example, the last collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, was published in 1927 (collecting stories published from 1921 to 1927). The author, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a British citizen, living in the United Kingdom. Under British law copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author, so this collection entered the public domain in the United Kingdom in 2001. However, it was registered in the United States and the copyright was renewed in the United States. Under United States law (for this period) copyright expires 95 years after publication, so this collection will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2023.

To make this even more complicated, the United States changed some of its laws to bring it in line with other countries. Works still in copyright outside the United States after 1996 may be under copyright in the United States regardless of any of the other copyright laws mentioned above. In 1994 the United States enacted the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA). This changed the copyright laws; bringing some non-American works out of the public domain and extending the copyright of other works. Under the URAA, if a non-United States work was still under copyright in its home country as of 1 January 1996(1 January 1996), its copyright status and period in the United States was changed to that of the home country. This only applies to works both published outside the United States and created by a non-United States citizen, as long as it had never been published in the United States before 1996. The URAA also means that if such a work is in the public domain in its home country, it is also in the public domain in the United States.

  • For a little more information about specific countries' copyright laws, Wikimedia Commons has the following guide: Commons:Licensing

Some other cases[edit]

Not all copyrights are based on the year of publication or the year of the author's death. For example:

  • Works of the United States Federal Government are considered to be in the public domain. Use the licence template {{PD-USGov}}.

Special notes[edit]

  • Periodicals: When dealing with a periodical (such as a magazine or newspaper) the periodical and each article in the periodical all have separate copyrights. See Wikisource:Periodicals. If the issue of the periodical as a whole is still under copyright this usually applied a "blanket" copyright to everything in that issue as well.
  • Posthumous works: If the author died before publication and publication occurred after 2002, the work entered the public domain 70 years after the author's death. This applies to works first published in or after 2003 by authors who died in or before 1943.
  • Translations: A translation has a copyright separate to that of the original work. Both the original and the translation must be in the public domain for Wikisource to accept the translation.

See also[edit]