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CORRECTION to LibriVox Story in Reason

My story about LibriVox in the May 2007 Reason magazine contains an unintentional error introduced in the editing process:

Of all the books published in the last 84 years, only those published in 1923 have entered the public domain…

This is incorrect. Books published before 1923 are free and clear in the public domain, though Mark Owings, a Reason reader, pointed out in an email to me many of the finer points to US copyright law:

You say “Of all the books published in the last 84 years, only those published in 1923 have entered the public domain…” Five points, some minor.

Firstly, that applies to the US, since copyright in other countries is more complicated, and things in the public domain here might not be salable or distributable elsewhere.

Secondly, some things that one might expect to be copyrighted were never actually sent in for copyright, since everything is assumed to be copyrighted! A lot of television episodes, since the studio did not think it was worth spending the fees and sending a copy of the script, and at least the first year of the magazine WEIRD TALES, I know. And of course the whole business with the revisions to The Lord of the Rings was because Houghton Mifflin did not bother with the forms and fee.

Thirdly, as I understand it, items +before+ 1923 are automatically in the public domain; those from 1923 may still be covered.

Fourthly, the renewal period for items after a certain point (I think in the 1970s) was 50 years after the death of the author, later life plus 75., so the death-date of the author may be a factor.

Fifthly, maybe most importantly, many items were never renewed, and therefore became public domain after 28 years. One can download from Gutenberg a list of items renewed from 1950 to 1977, covering original publication dates of 1923 to 1950. A lot of authors, or their agents or estates, are sloppy about that.

The US copyright law is actually something of a patchwork quilt, with little gaps from the three times it has been revised since 1968 (and in some ways it was stranger before about 1900).

For a handy-dandy flowchart for determining when copyright on works expires, go here.

I regret the error, and we will slap the editorial gremlins accordingly.