Copyrights: What is the law, and  how do I find out the status of an item? 

I am not a lawyer, and nothing on this page is legal advice -- read at your own risk.  For some reason, the world's copyright legislators have created a nightmare mess, in which it is almost impossible for material of no financial interest to anyone to be placed online without breaking the law.  In my view this needs attention by our legislators.

What I want to do on this page is to outline my understanding of what the law is, and the best information I can find which will allow me to discover if something is in copyright.  If anyone knows better, I'd like to hear it.  Part of the scam seems to be that those who own the copyrights make no effort to help the ordinary man to cooperate with them.

In reality, it's about money.  If someone is (legitimately) printing something and selling it, they will not give you permission to reproduce it for free. If they can prove that they lose money (which they probably can), then they will have a right to damages.  Of course if you are a student with no money, they probably won't bother; and if the damages are far less than the cost of action, I cannot see that they would bother.  If the stuff is no longer of commercial interest, they mostly don't  care, and will either allow you to reproduce it, or simply ignore your enquiry.  They could get no damages from suing you, so it must be questionable whether they would bother.  But that is a judgement each must make for himself.

Getting Copyright Clearances

Journals: Don't bother writing to the publishers.  It will be given to a clerk who will just say 'no' rather than take the time to find out if anyone cares (experience!).  Instead write to the chairman of the editorial board.  He will be a scholar who cares about the subject.

Books: You can write to the publishers.  I find it best to ring first, as if you are a nice person you can make friends, rather than be just another irritation.  Busy publishers hate this, of course, so be careful, but it's always best to have personal contact.  Then you can write.

Do get it in writing.  Don't be put off from asking - it's just a chore, but it prevents any malicious person sabotaging your website with a complaint to the publisher.

One other note.  I avoid putting stuff online without clearance if I think it is owned by big aggressive publishing combines.  Probably these have rooms full of underemployed lawyers yearning for some excitement, and I don't want to be the one to provide it. 

Great Britain and the other European Union countries

These have a really stupid system.  All work is automatically in copyright for 70 years after the death of the author.  So if you want to know if a bus-ticket is in copyright, first you need the biography of the author!  Of course these are nearly impossible to locate for most authors, and in practise libraries have to adopt arbitary rules when obstructing their customers.  However it is clear what the rule is - merely not how to find out.

The system means that a thesis publishing in Latin in 1892 in Austria-Hungary by a young scholar who died in 1950 is still in copyright, 110 years later (as if anyone cared).  And so, I find, the British Library will not supply me with a copy.  It must be the only place in the world where the rights of the Hapsburg emperor are still in the way of personal freedom!

I find that the online catalogue at the Bodleian Library in Oxford often has date of birth/death for an author.  Always try Google as well - some biographical sites do exist for surprisingly obscure people.

United States of America

This has in the past had much saner copyright law.  Most books, after all, once they have gone out of print are commercially dead.  However the US has also adopted the EU system now for works from 1978 onwards.  That should give the Chinese a good edge in education!  

As far as I can understand it, what follows is the story.  In theory this applies only to books (such as Loeb editions of the classics) or other literary material first published in the USA.  I don't know how they handle books (etc) published elsewhere - do American courts really enforce EU copyright law on books a century old?  Anyone know?

For some of this info, see the US Copyright Office.

Also Laura N. Gasaway - WHEN WORKS PASS INTO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN has a useful table.

However, a really good page detailing exactly what is and is not in copyright (much better than these notes) has just come online at Cornell University at Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States

Here is a page where the copyright entries for books and journals are being transcribed: US Catalog of Copyright Entries (Renewals) 


It is remarkably difficult to discover what the position in Canada is from a search on the internet.  I did discover that the Canadian government employs some jerks trying to make it harder for everyone - 'Copyright Reform' they called it; 'reform' in the same sense as abattoir workers probably refer to 'cow reform.'

I think the rule is life of the author + 50 years, as it used to be in Great Britain before the EU got involved.  But don't rely on this!


The Bible Foundation have a useful page on copyrights at which has further useful links - recommended.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

Written 19th January 2002.

This page has been online since 19th January 2002.

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