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I was noticing that there are a lot of documentaries from the 1940s and 50s (primarily American) on youtube. (Here's a bunch of 'em) I had thought that copyright in the US was life + 70 years, so even if the creators died immediately after filming, most of them are still under copyright for a few more years. Are they posted legally?

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  • Copyright law has changed over time. If they weren't explicitly released into the public domain, it's likely that they expired under a previous copyright law. Dec 30, 2016 at 6:58

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"Life + 70 years" is the duration under current US law, however, copyright in the US has been subject to a large number of durations at different times.

For WWII vintage works the terms were 28 years from publication if copyright was claimed, if published without a copyright notice then the were immediately public domain. The author could extend the protection for a further 28 years. With the passage of the 1976 law, the second term was automatically extended to 47 years to give existing works the same 75 year protection as new works.

Further, the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act increased the term to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication (whichever is earlier) for corporate works.

So, for any given WWII documentary it could have:

  • 0 years if published without a copyright notice
  • 28 years if the extension was never applied for
  • 95 years if the extension was applied for.

It is quite likely that extensions were not applied for for WWII documentaries as in the 1960-70s when the original term expired the only way to monetise them was through TV broadcast and 30 year old WWII documentaries were unlikely to be at the top of any network's programming schedule.

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  • More generally, there is a ton of old media from this era whose copyright was never renewed. Much of it is of niche interest at best, but some of it does have literary or historical value. For example, quite a lot of early modern science fiction is public domain by this route (such stories were often serialized in magazines, and then promptly forgotten about once the series had ended).
    – Kevin
    Mar 9, 2023 at 0:28

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