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Check if a book is in the public domain? asks how one can research whether a book has fallen in the public domain. Is there a way to go one step further, to protect oneself, either getting some official guarantee that it is not in the public domain that can be used in a courtroom, some official list (e.g. maybe a law university keeps a list which would be legally recognized), or perhaps insurance?

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    There's no "official list" or anything like that, as far as I know. But googling for "copyright infringement insurance" suggests that such liability would typically be covered by a business's general liability insurance. Aug 22 '20 at 3:07
  • It would be very unusual circumstances where you would be need to prove a book is not in the public domain in court and not have ample evidence at hand. Generally the only time someone would need to prove it is when a copyright owner is trying to enforce their rights, and in practice the status of the copyright is rarely disputed.
    – Ross Ridge
    Aug 23 '20 at 23:24
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    @RossRidge indeed. If former copyright holders know that the copyright has lapsed, they're not going to want to spend the time and money necessary to sue. And if they don't know that the copyright has lapsed, then their lawyers ought to tell them that it has before they get to court or even begin sending cease-and-desist letters.
    – phoog
    Aug 25 '20 at 19:50
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The closest that you can come to an official list is the registry maintained by the US copyright office. That tells you which copyrights have been registered, and does not tell you much about items not on the list. But, if a work is registered (and the copyright has not expired, which you can calculate), you know it is not in the public domain. The question is a bit odd, because I don't see how you could ever need to prove legally that a random work is not in the public domain.

Copyright is inherent in the act of creating a work and requires no additional actions, under current law. If you know the date of creation of the work, you can figure out whether the work is old enough that its copyright has expired. If you know that the work is "prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties", you know that it never was protected. These are the main sources of "being in the public domain" under US law, but the law doesn't actually talk about "public domain", it says when things are or are not protected by copyright.

A third source for being "in the public domain" is a "public domain" license, there an author says something sounding like "anybody can use this work as they see fit". CC0 is one attempt to emulate the concept of "public domain", by waiving rights and granting permission. Still, the work is protected by copyright if not in one of the two actual public domain categories. Also, under 17 USC 203 such a license can be terminated under certain conditions (during a period between 35 to 40 years after creating the work, approximately).

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  • One risk of the public domain license is that you can't necessarily be certain that the person issuing the license is actually the copyright holder. If they're not, the license has no effect, and you're still liable to the actual copyright holder for the infringement. Aug 23 '20 at 23:57
  • There's a fourth cause of being in the public domain, and that's by reason of copyright not applying in the first place. Copyright requires a creative effort. For instance, a telephone book is a collection of facts.
    – MSalters
    Aug 24 '20 at 10:12
  • @NateEldredge That same risk would apply to any licence.
    – Ross Ridge
    Aug 24 '20 at 19:56
  • @RossRidge: Certainly. But I think this is the sort of risk that OP is hoping they can eliminate. Aug 24 '20 at 20:52

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