Copyright and Public Domain
I and several other editors have been going through checking the copyright status of writeups of noders who basically kicked and screamed and stamped their feet after the unveiling of E2 Copyright Changes instead of being cool about it and helping E2 do the right thing.
Unfortunately, some unexplicated writeups of work from the early 20th century have gotten nuked that shouldn't have -- largely because their noders had a documented history of putting up great quantities of copyrighted work without permission and didn't take the simple step to add a footnote that these poems etc. were in fact in the public domain.
I was guilty of some of these unnecessary kills myself, unfortunately.
Let me say that I think the posting of public domain work is awesome, and I think the more work ends up in the public domain, the better. My (and other editors') confusion stemmed from the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which seemed to retroactively render the earlier "magic" date of 1923 null and void in certain circumstances.
The Act itself is impossible to make sense of on its own, because it references other laws rather than spelling out what its intent is. As a consequence I (and others) were reading it to mean that copyrights were retroactively extended to be the life of the author plus 70 years in all cases.
Which seemed to mean that the death-date of a creator was something one had to really consider.
For instance, consider a person who was born in 1900, published poetry as a college freshman in 1918, then lived to be 100, dying in 2000. It doesn't seem logically possible that this person's 1918 poetry would already be in the public domain, since she only died 3 years ago.
But apparently, that's how it really does work. I should probably seek logic elsewhere than U.S. law.
I emailed Cornell University's copyright office and Professor Lolly Gasaway, who is an oft-hired expert on copyright law. I cited my dead-in-2000, published in 1918 example above and asked if they could shed some light on the matter.
I got prompt replies from the copyright office:
The pre 1923 = public domain exists because when the Sony Bono Act was passed in 1998, these pre 1923 items were already in the public domain according to the previous laws. In other words, they were "grandfathered" in.
1922 FREEZE: The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act added twenty years to copyright terms. Public Law 105-298, 112 Stat. 2827 (1998). This explains why works published after 1922 are "frozen" until 2019. Works published in 1922 and earlier had already gone into the public domain at that time the law went into effect in 1998.
I recommend the following site for detailed explanations of copyright terms - http://www.llrx.com/features/digitization2.htm
Also, Circular 15a from the US Copyright Office - http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.html
Good luck with your project.
And also from the busy Professor Gasaway:
The chart is correct. The life + 70 applied only to works still under
copyright and the life + anything didn't go into effect until 1978 with
i don't have time to explain why all of this is true -- just trust me.
The "chart" in question is a chart Professor Gasaway created to help libraries and people like us sort out what's in public domain and what isn't.
I've reproduced it verbatim, legally, in full color, at public domain guidelines chart. If the bright candy color offend anyone, I can edit it down later.
EDITORZ PAWZ OFF THA PRETTY POEMZ FRUM TEH EARLIERS THAN 1923 THEY ARE GOOD AN HELPFUL AN I AM UH BIG ID10TZ0R FOR GITTIN WORRIED ABOUT LAWYUR STUFF! YEATS 'SPECIALLY! YEATS GOOD, FIRE BAD! FIRE BURN BOOKS, HULK SMASH!