Copyright and Preservation
D. Summary–What is Protected and What is in the Public Domain?
As of 1990, anything published before 1915 is in the public domain. Moreover, if a work was published before 1950, it must have been renewed under the old Act. If it was, it gained an additional 47 years (provided, of course, it was published with the requisite notice), but if it was not, it is now in the public domain.76 If it was published between 1950 and 1978, renewal registration must be completed by the end of the calendar year in which the twenty eighth anniversary of publication occurs. If the renewal is not (or was not) made in a timely manner, the work is in the public domain. If the work was first published after 1978, then it should be presumed to be protected. Finally, all U.S. government documents are in the public domain, except where they reproduce protected materials.
Until the new Copyright Act took over, unpublished works were protected in perpetuity unless they were registered with the Copyright Office. If they were registered, they were subject to the same statutory rules listed above. Under the new Act, unpublished works, like published works, are protected for the life of the author plus 50 years. For such works in existence before the new Act, the duration of protection varies, but in no case does protection expire before December 31, 2002. As a result, such unpublished works should, for the time being, be presumed to be protected.