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First, copyright law has changed over time. I finally found a definitive page that describes when a work would go into the public domain (barring any more stupid extensions like the Bono copyright extension). This can be found [url=http://www.unc.edu/%7Eunclng/public-d.htm]here[/url].
So any works published before 1923 are in the public domain.
Since the work that I'm interested in was published in 1950 with a copyright notice, then I have to determine if the copyright was renewed. If it's been renewed, it won't go out of copyright for a long time (2045). If not, it has been in the public domain since 1978. To determine that, I need to look at the Library of Congress renewal pages. These can be found online. For books, there are scans of the pages digital.library.upenn.edu/books/cce/ for works renewed up to 1978. For works renewed after 1978 you can search www.loc.gov/copyright/search/cohm.html using a searchable database.
Renewed works have to be renewed in the 28th year after their initial publication. Unfortunately, some works published in 1950 were renewed using the old system in 1977 and are not in the searchable database, so I have to resort to looking at the scans.
Up until 1973, the records were kept alphabetically, but after that they are listed by renewal number. Irritating once more. So for works originally copyrighted between 1945 and 1950 have no easy way to search. I have to download all ~100 pages of tifs and review them by hand.
I should add two more facts, anything written before 1882, regardless of when it was copyrighted will become public domain on January 1, 2003. And anyone who died more than 70 years ago (rounded up to the next whole year) will also be public domain. [url=http://www.llrx.com/features/digitization2.htm#2003]reference[/url].
Of course, I'm not a lawyer, just distilling facts from various web sites, so get professional help if it's truly important.
It was originally author's life +20 years, if I'm not mistaken. I think Disney may have been the ones who got the baseline expanded to +70 years in the first place.
But then you hear about manufacturing operations in China, for instance, that duplicate software and music CDs in full violation of US copyrights... what can be realistically done about that, if their gov't refuses to recognize the validity of US/Int'l copyright law? (Other than trade sanctions, etc.)
Kinda OT but interesting all the same.
As to China, well they do have copyright laws, but not the infrastructure to enforce them. And even then, when they are enforced, the contraband ends up back on the street quick smart. How do I know this?.?.?
The founders viewed copyright, like corporations, as potentially monopolistic and destructive to science and art, and grudgingly admitted both only with very limited terms and powers. I think they were right.
Copyright is more about getting a good lawyer, and then proving ownership of the copyrighted word at a particular point in time.
For those interested UK side, there is this nice succinct document!
Info on both U.S. and International copyright issues.
[url=http://www.loc.gov/copyright/title17/] Chapter 3 of Title 17[/url] of the United States Code specifically deals with duration of copyright.
What was mentioned before is correct: work is copyrighted for the life of the author plus 70 years. Work is copyrighted the moment it is created (as opposed to published) and the author does not need to register it for protection. You can however register your work (or web site) with the US copyright office http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/ for $35 for protection in case someone challenges the ownership of your work. Once you register, you can record your copyright with the US customs (if you live in the US).
When you include the copyright notice (the word and the symbol) it is necessary to include the year of first publication as well. More info here: http://www.benedict.com/info/info.asp
If you are more concerned with protecting your work it is a great idea to use the copyright symbol on everything you publish. You can recover up to $30000 in damages per infringement if no symbol is present in the work, but you can recover up to $150000 if the symbol is present.
As for the international law, here is the PDF from the US copyright office: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl100.pdf
Here is the web site of Dr. Kahn who was the main speaker at the conference I attended:
My own philosophy is that if I did not create it, I have no right to use it without permission. At times I would write a letter and I would ask for permission to use someone's work, and usually I get it.
barring any more stupid extensions like the Bono copyright extension
I fail to see why extending copyright is "stupid". What is wrong with a company like Disney, whose very existence depends upon certain materials, to want to retain the rights to those materials?
And I find it very interesting that many people seem to consider patents to be "stupid" as well. Come on, drug companies, for example, spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing their products - why on earth is it okay for their rights to expire in a few years and thus be produced by some companies which did not have anything to do with that development effort?
Sometimes these issues are presented as black and white, and, well, there are two sides to a fence. There are good reasons why these laws exist.
As long as the author was diligent about renewing, no work written since 1923 will enter the public domain before 2018, except for works written before 1882 but published later, or written by people who died more than 70 years ago. When 2017 rolls around, I wouldn't be surprised to get another copyright extension. No work written since I was one year old (1964) will enter the public domain in my lifetime unless I live to an extraordinary age.
As a bonus, Congress has deemed that any work published between 1978-01-01 and 2002-12-31 is automatically protected until 2047-12-31 regardless of when the author died.
As I was looking through an entire year of copyright renewal notices from 1977 (renewing works from 1949-1950), I noticed that there were a couple of entities that did the majority of renewing: Disney, Superman, Tarzan, and West lawbooks. They had hundreds of renewals each in a single year--maybe half of all renewals. When Congress stopped requiring renewing, the Library of Congress lost thousands of dollars in renewal fees from these companies.
Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the work I was concerned about is in the public domain, since I couldn't find a renewal record. Since it is so hard to be sure, I emailed the publisher that republished the original work telling them that I thought it was in the public domain and prove me wrong.