In the United States, under U.S. copyright law, works published in 1926 and earlier are now in public domain. One can publish them or use them without securing copyright permission. In case you are wondering about the specifics, the Copyright Term Extension Act (passed in 1998) gave works published from 1923 through 1977 a 95-year term limit. They enter public domain on January 1 after the conclusion of the 95th year.
It gets a little complicated because anything copyrighted before 1977 had only a 28-year protection. The copyright had to be renewed in the 28th year, or the book went into public domain. It is estimated that as much as 85% of such properties were not renewed and are now in public domain. But determining that for certain can be quite a task!
By the way, this happens not only with books but anything under copyright like films and music.
Notable titles are on this year’s list:
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (later adapted into the film Lawrence of Arabia)
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, decorations by E. H. Shepard
Also note that while these books are in the public domain, you can’t slap your name on them and claim you wrote them. There’s a word for that: plagiarism.
And if you want to plan ahead? In 2023 the following are on the list to slide into the public domain:
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
Mickey Mouse (but is trademarked, so be careful)
Hardy Boys, first book (but I believe the Hardy Boys are also trademarked, so be careful)
I’ve written about copyright and contracts before, but I’d like to clarify some practical details. This post was about property published before 1926. The copyright law was revised in 1978 to include property published between 1923 and 1977.
Anything published after 1978 is under the new copyright rules. The term is the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. A long time.
After that, the book is in public domain. Traditional book contracts usually say that the rights are granted to the publisher for the life of the copyright (unless reverted to the author earlier).
Therefore, if you publish with GGGG Publishing this year, you go to glory in 2029, AND your book continues to sell, it could be published by GGGG until 2099. At that point, it goes into public domain and anyone can publish without paying the estate.
My guess? By 2095 the laws over copyright may change. And you won’t care!
A YA author created an interesting book with a scary premise. All Rights Reserved by Gregory Stott Katsoulis. In the story every word has been copyrighted. So when you speak or write a word, it is deducted from your bank account. (Thus few people speak.) Also, a corporation created a program to compose every possible variation of music and copyrighted them all. So if you sing anything, it is deducted from your bank account.
People don’t get charged until they reach a certain age. So the day before they become adults, the boy or girl makes a final speech.
Everyone must have a wristband that hears every word or sound in order to invoice the user. Sort of like having Alexa or Google Home listening to every word spoken in your home.