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A Public Domain Research Refresher…

I thought I would take some time to recap the basics of copyright research here in the United States. It’s not always a cut and dry process, and some exceptions exist (like the role of trademark, privacy and publicity rights), but they are usually only an issue with image and video-based works. Also please note that I am not a copyright attorney, and neither is my husky, Kola. So please don’t consider this as legal counsel. What I shared above is based on my own research and experience (although it’s proven fairly accurate).

This post is primarily geared toward Public Domain books, but the research techniques will also work for other media. Here we go…works published in the United States BEFORE 1923 are in the Public Domain…period. 

Books published from 1923 to 1964 had to have their copyrights renewed in the 28th year from publication to retain copyright status. If they failed to renew the copyright, the book fell into the Public Domain, and from what I’ve seen and heard, this lapse into the Public Domain includes 80% or more of the books published during that time period. To verify the status of a book, say, from 1956, you’ll need to do the following:

1. With the book being published in 1956, the 28th year of renewal would be 1984. To check those renewal records, you need to go to the U.S. Copyright website ( and click on “Search the Catalog.”

2. On the search page, you’ll find a place to enter the book title or author name, and then choose the corresponding entry from the list of options provided below the search box. So, if your author’s name was “Jack London” then you would enter that into the box as “London, Jack”, choose “author” from the options box below the search field and click, “Begin Search.”

3. In the results, you will see the author name and book title, the Copyright Number and the Date. If you find your book listed, and the Copyright Number begins with “RE”, it’s been renewed. If you don’t find your book listed, then chances are likely that it’s in the Public Domain.

4. Things to be aware of…You will want to try variations of the author name and the title when conducting your search. For example, let’s say your author’s name was William Walker Atkinson. His name could potentially be listed in the records in a number of different ways, including his full name, William Atkinson, William W. Atkinson, W.W. Atkinson, etc. Also, when conducting a search using the title, if the title begins with an initial article (like: A, An, The, etc.) do not include those in your search box entry. I typically conduct searches beginning with the author’s last name only, unless it’s a really common name like “Smith.” I’ve found in most cases, that this approach will turn up what I’m searching for, if it’s there.

If the book was published before 1950, the Copyright database will not be able to help you. In thoses cases, you have two options. Go to the Stanford Copyright Renewal Search Database ( and conduct your search there using the same methods I shared above, or go to the UPenn Catalog of Copyright Renewals ( and search through the entries manually. Please note that the Stanford search engine ONLY supports book searches. If you are researching a magazine, newspaper, article, etc., you’ll need to use the UPenn Catalog. If you use this second option, I would highly recommend still searching for variations of the author’s name and title, but ALSO, I would check the year prior to and the year after the year the copyright should have been renewed as a safeguard. So if the book you are checking was published in 1939, it would renew in 1967. On the Catalog of Copyright Renewals page, you would click on “1967” and then check the alphabetical entries listed for BOTH Part 1 (January – June) and Part 2 (July – December). If your book is NOT listed there (or in the Stanford Database), you should be in the clear!

To reiterate those research opptions:

If your work was published before 1923, it is in the Public Domain. If the work was published between 1923 and 1964, it may be in the Public Domain if the copyright wasn’t renewed in the 28th year from original publication. For books dated 1923 to 1950, check the Stanford Search Database and/or the Catalog of Copyright Renewals at UPenn to see if the work was renewed. If your book was published between 1950 and 1964, check the Copyright Office’s Online Search. Also, please note that there can be some issues with books copyrighted in 1950. They may need to be researched at all the above places because their renewal timeframe is when the Copyright Office began handling the databases differently. So a 1950 renewal (1978) could potentially be in one place or the other.

Hope this helps!

Tony Laidig

PS – If you have any questions about this process, please feel free to post them here!

One Response to “A Public Domain Research Refresher…”

  • Cindy:

    Hi, Tony ~

    There is an article which appeared in a magazine in 1975 which I would now like to use.

    After contacting the magazine which published the article, I have been advised that, in this case, the article’s author would have copyright ownership “IF” he filed for copyright protection.

    I can’t find any information on how to go about researching a magazine article per se and this one in particular, especially as it is pre-1978.

    Would you advise that I try to contact the author to verify the copyright status of the article?


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