Thursday, November 22, 2012

Goodbye Copyright

As you eat turkey today, you probably won't think about those Christmas cards you intend to start working on tomorrow. Or maybe you will.

You wonder about buying them while you are at the Black Friday sales. But trying to find the Christ Child among all those "seasons greetings" is depressing.

So if you're like me, you make your own. Or maybe you write a newsy e-mail instead. Either way, you may want to include a verse from your favorite Christmas carol. Can you?"

As my father used to say, "You can, but may you?"  (Groan.)

It depends on how old it is.

"Silent Night"? No problem. It was written in 1818 and any copyright protection expired long ago.

"The Little Drummer Boy"? Sorry. Its copyright was registered in 1959 and renewed in 1987, so you need permission.

But how do you know when a copyright expires and the work passes into the public domain? The term is governed by statute, and Congress changes it from time to time. As a result, the length of protection depends on when the work was created, published, or registered.

If the work was published before 1923, the answer is easy. It's in the public domain and you can use it any way you want.

If it was created in 1978 or later, the earliest it will enter the public domain is 2048. For most of these works, the copyright term is the life of the author plus 70 years. If the author died in 1986, the copyright expires in 2056. If she died in 2006, the copyright expires in 2076. And if the author is still living, all you can know for sure is that the copyright will last at least another 70 years.

If the material you want to quote was a work for hire or the author is unknown, other rules apply. And if it was created, published, or registered from 1923 through 1977, the law gets even more complicated. For more information on these expiration dates, go to and download Circular 15A.

Because a copyright lawsuit is even more terrifying than the Black Friday sales.

Kathryn Page Camp


  1. Very helpful. Thank you. Does this mean I have to wait 70+ hopefully many, many more years to freely use this blog?


  2. In the case of this particular post, I hope it is at least 110 years. (I plan to live another 40.) But I'm easy when it comes to giving permission...

    Although every person who posts on this blog owns his or her own copyright, there are two great things about blogs. One is that by posting the material on the Internet, the author gives permission to link to it. The other is that it's easier to track down the author to get permission if you want to use the material elsewhere.

  3. Great post, Kathryn! I've run into some sticky copyright issues, esp. when I wrote my biographies. Thanks for condensing current law into a nutshell!