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Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States – 2010 Update An interview with Peter Hirtle

Peter Hirtle has issued his 2010 update to his invaluable Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart.

Minow: This chart was useful when it first arrived on the scene many years ago, but now it is an essential document for all libraries and others with projects that need to ascertain the copyright status of older works. In recent years, you’ve added sound recordings and architectural works. The true labor of love, is works published outside the United States. Tell us what you added this year.

Hirtle: I’ve added the list of countries that have joined Berne or WTO after 1 January 1996. I’ve also tweaked the language of the Laos exceptions, though I am still unsure about this and welcome readers’ comments. Here’s the issue: Laos joined the UCC in 1954. Works published after that date that complied with US formalities would receive protection. The new Laotian government repudiated the constitution and the previous government in 1974, but I assume that once a work got protection in the US, it continued to have that protection; it was not necessary for the treaty to remain in force. And I don’t think that the Laotian government has ever formally renounced its membership in the UCC, but has just ignored it. So I don’t know the status of Laotian works after 1974. And as far as I can tell, Laos is the only country whose only copyright regime is still the UCC.

Minow: Whew.

Hirtle: The other changes are minor. I changed the title of the US section to include registered works as well a published, but this still isn’t quite right (since a foreign work could have been registered, entered the public domain through non-renewal, and then had its copyright restored in 1996).

At the recommendation of a user, I added a reference to US government works at the end of that section. (It had been in a footnote.) In footnote 1, we added a link to Copyright and Cultural Institutions, which provides more background on the categories in the chart. Finally, we have changed the Creative Commons license on the chart from BY-NC to simply BY. I hope that this makes it more useful.

Minow: Do you ever regret getting started on this?

Hirtle: Not really. My one worry is that the chart may contribute to an illusion of certainty when ambiguity is the reality. An archives, for example, might assume that a manuscript letter in its holdings is an unpublished work, when in reality it had been published with the authority of the copyright owner years before and must be treated as a publication. A museum might blithely assume that works created before 1923 are in the public domain, whereas either the works were unpublished (and hence the 1923 date does not apply), or were published (and therefore needed to follow the rules on notice, renewal, etc.). The complexities in the chart are symptomatic of a failed copyright system, but I hold out little hope that it will change.


* Peter B. Hirtle is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Cornell University Library and member of the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Advisory Board.

Mary Minow is Executive Editor of the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Website.