We have seven active rules under which an item may be copyright-cleared for inclusion in the Project Gutenberg collection. If you are uncertain about whether a rule applies, or whether more than one rule applies, please submit the item for our consideration. This is safer and easier than addressing hypothetical questions about potential items.
(rules 7 and 9 are not currently in use)
“Publication” is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication. A work is considered to be “first published in the United States” if it was (i) first published solely in the United States, (ii) first published simultaneously in the United States and another country, or (iii) was also published in the United States within 30 days after first publication in a foreign nation.
A “U.S. Work” is a work where (i) one or more of the authors was a national or domiciliary of the United States at the time of first publication, (ii) the work was first published in the United States, (iii) the work was first published by the United Nations or the Organization of American States, (iv) an architectural work embodied in a building located in the United States, or (v) a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work incorporated into a building located in the United States.
Summary: As of 2023, qualifying Works published in 1927 or earlier do not have copyright protection in the U.S.
Detail: For Works published prior to January 1, 1978, the maximum term of copyright protection is 95 years from the date of first publication. This is regardless of whether the Work complied with U.S. requirements for notice, registration and renewal. This is regardless of where the Work was published or the nationality of the authors.
Historical detail: For Works first published before January 1, 1923, the maximum term of copyright protection was 75 years from the date of first publication. This was regardless of whether the Work complied with U.S. requirements for notice, registration and renewal. This was regardless of where the Work was published. Thus, any such Works published prior to 1923 have been in the public domain in the U.S. since 1998 or earlier.
Rule 1 is the rule we use the most, and it may be utilized for Works published before 1978. Works published in 1978 or later are not subject to Rule 1.
Works first created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected under U.S. copyright law until 70 years after the death of the author if the author is a natural person. (Copyright protection will not expire for any works under this rule until at least January 1, 2049.)
Works first created on or after January 1, 1978 that are created by a corporate author are protected under U.S. copyright law until 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation whichever occurs first. (Copyright protection will not expire for any works under this rule until at least January 1, 2074.)
Works created before January 1, 1978 but not published before that date are copyrighted under rules similar to rules 2 and 3 above, except that in no case will the copyright on a work not published prior to January 1, 1978 expire before December 31, 2002. If the work was published before December 31, 2002, its copyright will not expire before December 31, 2047. (This rule extends copyright protection to a lot of manuscripts that we would otherwise think of as not protected by U.S. copyright law because of their age.)
If a substantial number of copies of a U.S. Work were printed and distributed in the U.S. prior to March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice, and the work is of entirely American authorship or is considered to be first published in the United States, the work is not protected under U.S. copyright law. (Note that we cannot clear items printed/published outside of the U.S. under this rule.)
Rule 6 copyright research is only accepted from known volunteers with demonstrated competency in the required evidence steps to provide non-renewal evidence.
Project Gutenberg’s “Rule 6” from the Copyright How-To provides a mechanism for demonstrating that items no longer have copyright protection, due to non-renewal of copyright. Rule 6 may only be used for items first published in the US between 95 years ago and December 31, 1963.
Based on review of the US Library of Congress’ historical renewal records, Project Gutenberg has estimated that over 85% of all registered books and monographs are never renewed. The procedures described here are intended to identify whether a particular item is among those that were not renewed.
These procedures are to enact a good faith effort by Project Gutenberg to establish safe harbor categories of works which clearly are not protected by copyright due to non-renewal, and whose non-renewal status may be determined unambiguously. These determinations enable PG to move forward and use its resources wisely in its efforts to build its library collection.
Rule 6 may be applied to published books, monographs, serials, or portions of these items. It may not be applied to unpublished items, such as manuscripts and letters. It may not be applied to other types of items, such as audio recordings or speeches. It may only be applied when first publication was in the US, by authors residing in the US.
If the work being researched is a play, screenplay or other work intended for oral presentation, search must include the Drama section of the renewals for the usual years. Photoplays (usually scripts that have pictures from a production or film bound in with them) must be researched in the Film section of the Library of Congress renewal records, as well. Those sections of renewals are not yet digitized.
Rule 6 copyright clearances are challenging to complete. Project Gutenberg insists that that Rule 6 copyright clearance requests are submitted by persons who have demonstrated their ability to do accurate and complete copyright research. Rule 6 clearance research must include three components:
Note that there are many resources for this bibliographical research, and none are complete. Different genres and time periods are covered by different resources (print and online). Submitters must have the needed expertise to know what resources are available and suitable for the necessary research.
If the Catalog of Copyright Entries is available for the initial publication, an effort should be made to find the initial registration as it may provide valuable additional information in determining whether the item has been renewed.
Search for renewal records. Provide details on which resources (print or online) were used. Search for all variations on title, author, compilation, etc. Provide details on search terms used and other variations.
Renewals that would be due on the 28th year after first publication could actually occur or be registered earlier or later. For this reason, we consider an otherwise valid renewal to be applicable if it is found in the 27th, 28th, 29th or 30th year after first publication. Thus, renewals need to be searched plus or minus two years of the 28th year after first publication.
If a variation is found to be renewed for the 28th year after publication (plus or minus 2 years), then Project Gutenberg will not assert that the item no longer has copyright protection. Variations include very similar items (such as reprints).
For serial items, renewals for the entire work (with all serial parts combined) will be deemed to apply to each serial part. However, this only applies when the item and/or the renewal are within the four year period (27th, 28th, 29th and 30th year after first publication).
Renewal by someone other than the author may occur for a variety of reasons. Project Gutenberg does not have the resources to investigate whether a renewal might be invalid due to who renews. Thus, any renewal within the allowed time period is treated by Project Gutenberg as valid.
Documentation of your research must accompany a Rule 6 clearance request, as submitted at copy.pglaf.org. Include your responses as an additional .txt file with the clearance data.
A letter from the publisher, written statements from the author or heirs, or court cases are examples of evidence for copyright protection status that, if available, may supersede the other research. Such evidence might confirm or deny copyright protection status.
If these types of data are available, please discuss with the Project Gutenberg copyright clearance team to determine how to proceed.
Consult the Copyright Renewal Registers to look for a renewal record. There are several sources, so you often need to look in more than one place. These Registers are published annually, and are partially online via the US Copyright Office. Project Gutenberg has digitized a number of volumes, and there are searchable databases at Stanford and Rutgers.
Project Gutenberg has published eBooks of all of the Book entries from the Copyright Renewal Register as eBooks # 11800 (all volumes combined) through 11856. These are not exhaustive for all entry types, since periodicals were only sometimes included in the source publications.
A more complete set of data is here: onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/cce, including page scans of the same materials as the Project Gutenberg eBooks #11800 - 11856 (good for checking for possible typos in the eBooks), as well as the Periodicals sections not included in the PG eBooks. This site also includes drama and artwork renewals 1950-1952, and all other nonmusical renewals for 1950.
For renewal records 1978 through 1992, you must also search at the US Library of Congress Web site: www.copyright.gov/records
To summarize, PG #11800 has (non-drama) book renewals for 1950-1977, periodicals renewals for 1950 only, and contributions to periodicals renewals for mid-1953 through 1977. (It also has all other nonmusical renewals for 1950.) Thus, #11800 cannot be the only source used for anything published in a periodical prior to 1955, nor for anything published after 1947 (items that needed to be renewed by 1975). Additionally, it can only be used for books and (some) periodicals, not for other types of works (drama, artwork, music…).
Most recent update: August 21, 2016 (with minor typographical changes on January 13, 2019).
Items published by the United States Government do not have copyright protection in the US. We need to be careful with this rule, because some items distributed by the U.S. Government might have been authored by other entities who are entitled to a copyright.
The key concept for protection of published foreign works under U.S. copyright law is to grant copyright protection in the U.S. under U.S. law, equivalent to that afforded to U.S. Works created and first published at a similar time, to works of foreign countries who grant reciprocity to U.S. works in their territories under their copyright laws. The countries whose works qualify for this protection are called Treaty Parties or Proclamation Countries. Because of this equivalency principle, many of the rules for foreign works will seem similar to rules for U.S. Works. However, different research is required because it is first necessary to determine i) what were the authors’ nationalities and domiciles at the time of first publication, ii) what is the work’s source country, and iii) whether the work’s source country currently qualifies as a Treaty Party or a Proclamation Country. Research into publication with or without notice or into registration or renewal is not necessary because foreign works from Treaty Parties and Proclamation Countries are no longer required to comply with U.S. formalities including notice, registration, and renewal. The remainder of the maximum term of protection under U.S. law has been restored for all works of Treaty Parties and Proclamation Countries which previously may have lost copyright protection under U.S. law for failure to comply with notice, registration and renewal requirements.
A “Treaty Party” is a country or intergovernmental organization other than the United States that is a party to 1. the Universal Copyright Convention; 2. the Geneva Phonograms Convention, which is the Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication of Their Phonograms, concluded at Geneva, Switzerland, on October 29, 1971; 3. the Berne Convention, which is the Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, signed at Berne, Switzerland, on September 9, 1886, and all acts, protocols, and revisions thereto ; 4. the WTO (World Trade Organization) Agreement; 5. the WIPO Copyright Treaty concluded at Geneva, Switzerland, on December 20, 1996; 6. the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty concluded at Geneva, Switzerland, on December 20, 1996.; and any other copyright treaty to which the United States is a party.
A “Presidential Proclamation Country” is a country for which a presidential proclamation has been issued finding that the particular foreign nation extends, to works by authors who are nationals or domiciliaries of the United States or to works that are first published in the United States, copyright protection on substantially the same basis as that on which the foreign nation extends protection to works of its own nationals and domiciliaries and works first published in that nation.
The “Source Country” for a published work is a Treaty Party or Presidential Proclamation country 1. in which the work is first published, or 2. if the work is published on the same day in 2 or more eligible countries, the eligible country which has the most significant contacts with the work.
An “eligible foreign work” is a published work satisfying one or more of the following criteria: 1. on the date of first publication, one or more of the authors is a national, domiciliary, or sovereign authority of a treaty party, or is a stateless person; or 2. the work is first published in a foreign nation that, on the date of first publication, is a treaty party; or 3. the work is a sound recording that was first fixed in a treaty party; or 4. the work is a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work that is incorporated in a building or other structure, or an architectural work that is embodied in a building and the building or structure is located in a treaty party; or 5. the work comes within the scope of a Presidential proclamation extending U.S. copyright protection to works of which one or more of the authors is, on the date of first publication, a national, domiciliary, or sovereign authority of that nation, or which was first published in that nation.
U.S. law grants exactly the same protection to unpublished works created by foreign authors as it grants to unpublished works created by U.S. authors regardless of the nationality of any foreign authors or the treaty status of the authors’ countries of nationality or domicile. Apply Rules 2, 3 and 4.
The maximum term of protection under U.S. copyright law for eligible foreign works first published before January 1, 1923 expired no more than 75 years from the date of first publication. Hence, all works which would otherwise qualify as eligible foreign works first published before 1923 are no longer protected by U.S. copyright law, regardless of where they were published.
The maximum term of copyright protection for eligible foreign works first published between 1923-1978 expires 95 years from the date of first publication. 2019 was the first year in which works could be cleared under this rule.
If the source country for a work is not the United States or a Treaty Party country or a Presidential Proclamation country, then the work has no protection in the United States under U.S. copyright law. Very few countries fit in this category.
Below is a little more background and detail on U.S. copyright law as it pertains to Project Gutenberg:
Caveat: Each edition of a work may have its own period of copyright protection (this depends on whether the new edition involves “authorship” or simply corrects punctuation). Every translation has independent copyright protection. A new edition does not extend the protection of the original edition.
The general rule for the minimum term of copyright protection is life of the author plus 50 years (extended to life plus 70 years in many countries, as a result of globalization of copyright laws and pressure from content owners). No major country other than the United States has required copyright notice, and refused protection for works without copyright notice. Rules on corporate authors differ.
When someone publishes or distributes in the United States, U.S. law applies. When someone publishes or distributes in other countries, their law applies.
Under the 1909 Copyright Act, the original term lasted 28 years (not 26). It was renewable for an extra 28 years, for a total of 56 years. Until 1992, copyright protection would expire if renewal was not filed in a timely manner. However, even with diligent research, it is difficult to determine with assurance that renewal was not filed.
In the mid 1950’s Congress started working on a major revision of the copyright act, but by 1960 it was clear that this would not be a short process. By 1962, the copyright had expired on everything published before 1906. It was clear that the new act would grant existing works a total term of 75 years. To prevent these works from losing out on the 75 year extension while Congress worked out all the other details of the new act, Congress started passing extension acts in 1962. Such extensions prevented copyright expirations before the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act, with the result that all copyrights in existence in 1962 were extended to at least 1976 when the 75-year term kicked in.
Effective in 1998, after copyright protection for works first published in 1922 had expired, the copyright term was extended for all works as to which copyright protection had not yet expired. Thus, for works published in 95+ years ago, and thereafter (provided they were renewed, or were exempt from renewal requirements) the effective term will be 95 years.
The rules on public speeches, musical performances, and other works not originally fixed in a tangible medium of expression are somewhat different, and require a determination based on the facts of the individual instance.
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