I'm attempting to demonstrate that a film registered in 1947 did not have its copyright renewed by the registrant in its 28th year, and thus would have fallen out of copyright and become public domain (because it was published between 1922 and 1964 before the law with respect to renewal changed). The film itself is already present in several public domain archives, so there is good reason to believe this is the case; however, one needs to be certain about these things before publishing a work that incorporates the original.

I can pay a firm to do a search of registrations and renewals based on the data present at the Library of Congress (the data is not present in the LOC's online search due to its age), or I can pay them a lot more (4x) to do a more exhaustive search for assignment of the copyright to other entities as well.

My question is this: if the production company had assigned or transferred their copyright to another entity prior to the 28th year, and that other entity had renewed the copyright themselves, would we still expect that renewal to be reflected in a search of registrations and renewals for the copyrighted work?

Alternatively, is there a better approach to demonstrate that a work is now public domain?

(If so, then presumably the less-exhaustive but much-less-expensive search should be adequate to show that the film did not have its copyright renewed in 1975 and therefore became public domain.)

  • If it was published in 1992, that puts it before the 1923 cutoff, doesn't it? – Jason Aller Apr 10 '18 at 4:15
  • My understanding is that if it was published before 1923 it's already public domain... works published from 1923 to 1964 had to be renewed in their 28th year or they became public domain. If they were renewed, then they'd be good for 95 years from the registration date. The work in question was published and registered with the copyright office in 1947, so it would need to have been renewed in 1975 or fall into the public domain. – Nick Johnson Apr 10 '18 at 4:53

Did some additional research on this, and the answer is probably "it depends on who is doing the search." I contacted CompuMark, one commercial entity which runs its own copyright search service and asked them if their "Registration and Renewal" search product would catch this corner case. They assert that it would. I can't vouch for them, and I am sure there are multiple companies in this market from which to choose.

The Library of Congress itself also offers a search service; by their description this search is pretty thorough, and while I haven't gotten a definitive answer from them yet, I strongly suspect based on their description that they would also discover such a renewal.

Less clear is what would happen if you visited the Library of Congress and attempted to perform the search yourself. According to circulars published by the LOC the card catalog contains "idiosyncrasies" and someone unfamiliar with its quirks might miss something.

So I think the bottom line is that you're probably best off paying someone (be it a private searcher or the LOC itself) who understands the LOC filing system to do the search on your behalf, and ask them ahead of time what their search will and won't discover before you order your search, rather than trying to execute such a search in-person. Make sure that whatever you're paying for will cover the cases that matter to you.

  • 1
    This is an accurate assessment. It isn't that different in principle from a search of real property records, in which it is possible to find all properly indexed records, but many people lack the technical expertise to conduct the search properly. – ohwilleke Apr 11 '18 at 5:23

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