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I am trying to show some illustrations and pictures from the pages of a 1931 book in my YouTube educational video. The author is dead with no known living descendants. A scanned copy of the book can be freely download in The Internet Archive site, where the following information is listed "No known copyright restrictions as determined by scanning institution". Then I looked for the company that published the book and it can be traced to a modern publisher. I wrote them and this is the answer I got:

The rights to this work reverted to the author in 1951. The following is the referral information from then:

Ms. Margaret Wilson, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., 270 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016.

and I have trouble understanding what that means. That the rights 'reverted to the author in 1951' means that (since the guy is dead and I can't find any living descendants, and the book seems to be offered for free to download in The Internet Archive) I can happily show images from the book in my YouTube video and get away with just printing "(C) 1951 [name of the author here]" in the end titles of the video?

Remark: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc. can be traced up to Penguin Random House today, and they list many books by the same author in their catalog, but not that one.

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"The rights to this work reverted to the author in 1951" means that back in 1951 the publisher's contract to print the book ended, and the author resumed full rights. (This might have been done by the author, or the publisher, depending on their contract.) It does not mean that the copyright lapsed or that the work entered the public domain. "Ms. Margaret Wilson" was presumably the author or the author's agent, or perhaps the publishers representative back in 1951. She may or may not be alive, and the firm of "Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc" may have been the new publisher (unless it was the old one, the question is not clear, and without the title I can't cross check). If DS&P was the new publisher, the rights might now be held by E. P. Dutton, as they seem to have acquired the rights to the bulk of the DS&P catalog.

In any case, the copyright would (if it is in force) now be held by the author's heir, or whoever the author might have sold or given it to. Someone will be the legal owner. That it is not being marketed does not release the copyright or license the work for general use. If there was no other heir, it would have become government property. In the US, it would become the property of the state where the owner was a legal resident.

If this was a work by a US author first published in the US, copyright needed to be renewed after 28 years, which would have been in 1959 (plus or minus one year, I believe). If the work required copyright renewal, and this was not done, then the work is in the public domain, and can be freely used by anyone. Records of copyright renewals, by year, are available for download from Project Gutenberg, or can be searched at the US Copyright Office.

There is no way to be sure how the "scanning institution" determined that "No known copyright restrictions" apply, short of asking that institution. It is possible that they checked for a copyright renewal and did not find one.

If you use content from this work, and the copyright is still in force, the copyright holder or an exclusive licensee could sue for copyright infringement. There is no way to tell if this would in fact happen. It may well be that the legal holder does not even know that s/he owns this copyright. Obviously, in that case, a suit is highly unlikely. But that would be entirely at the risk of anyone who used such content.

Under US law, such use might or might not be considered "fair use". This would depend on several factors, and there is not enough information in the question to even guess. Fair use is an active defense, that an accused infringer may assert in court. It also does not apply in non-US cases.

The odds are probably against any such suit being brought, but the amount at stake if one was brought could be large.

  • HERE IT IS! It's the second entry here: cocatalog.loc.gov/cgi-bin/… (Half Mile Down by William Beebe) It seems it wasn't renewed. What do you think? – Eduardo Guerras Valera May 30 at 20:10
  • Additinally, it is published by "Forgotten books" forgottenbooks.com/en/books/HalfMileDown_10856842 – Eduardo Guerras Valera May 30 at 21:01
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    @Edu That looks good, but I went the extra (half) mile and checked all 6 volumes of copyright renewals for 1958-60 at PG ( 2 per year) Half Mile Down is not listed. Oddly 3 other books by William Beebe, and 2 by his wife (apparently novels) were renewed in the volumes I checked. I wonder why he didn't renew the copyright on this once very popular book when he was renewing others from the same year? But it seems that it was not renewed, and would thus be in PD, and free for use. – David Siegel May 30 at 21:09
  • See gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=copyright+renewal+1960 for the 1960 renewals – David Siegel May 30 at 21:11
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    @Eduardo Guerras Valera if all they did was republish, there is no new copyright and they have no possible claim. If they aided significant new content, they have copyright on the new content, but not on anything from the 1931 edition. A derivative work does not get a copyright on the original, only on new or altered content (translated, for example). Anyone may base a work on the original once it is out of copyright. – David Siegel May 31 at 17:37
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Sometimes authors put that the rights will go back to them in cases where the publisher does not want to print the book anymore. https://authorsalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/Documents/Guides/Authors%20Alliance%20-%20Understanding%20Rights%20Reversion.pdf

The other books by that author may not have had that in the contract when they were published. The company is telling you that the author would have to decide since they do not own it.

Most likely, it is safe, but I do not know what specific book you want. If someone comes forward though and does own the copyright, just be respectful and take it down at that time.

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