How To Tell If A Magazine Is In The Public Domain

Better Homes & Gardens, September 1933, & The Country Home, May 1932 - both Public Domain due to failure of publisher to renew copright protection 28 years after publication

How To Tell If A Magazine Is In The Public Domain…

I got a great question today from my friend Barbara about public domain magazines

“Hi, having recently bought your ebook collection and read some of your posts, I have a query. Now first of all sorry, because I have no doubt the answer is in this info somewhere but I just can’t find it. Can you point me to the bit where you explain about Magazines and how to tell if they are in public domain please. Many thanks ~ Barbara”

Public domain magazines are a hot topic so I thought you may be interested in the answer to this question as well – here goes!

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for the excellent question.

The primary focus of the Public Domain Treasure Hunter’s Kit is on books in the public domain. The entire kit was essentially written to guide in using public domain books to create new information products so we didn’t cover public domain magazines in any great detail. We have plans on the table to create a new product specifically about this but it’s not nearly ready yet.

Determining the copyright status of a magazine isn’t too much different from the procedures used to determine the copyright status of public domain books.

But there is a major difference that you need to be aware of…

First off, any magazine published in the U.S. before 1923 is in the Public Domain (just like books).

Any magazine published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1963 could be in the public domain if it’s copyright protection was NOT renewed 28 years after publication (again just like books).

The big difference between magazines and books though is that with magazines you have what I refer to as the double copyright dilemma ~ first you have to check the copyright status of the magazine as a whole, then once  it’s been confirmed that the magazine is in fact in the public domain, you have to check the copyright status of each article (or photograph) you intend to republish.

This is because, under U.S. Copyright Law, a magazine (or almost any periodical) is considered a “collective work”. This basically means that the magazine as a whole is registered for copyright protection by the publisher AND…each individual article in that same magazine is usually separately registered for copyright protection by the author of the article.

In short, what this means is that you potentially have a situation where a magazine is in the public domain (because of the publisher’s failure to renew 28 years after publication) but an article that you may want to use from that magazine is not in the public domain (because the author of the article registered for copyright renewal 28 years after publication.)

So the procedure is as follows…

STEP #1 – Determine If The Magazine As A Whole Is In The Public Domain

First make a determination as to whether the magazine itself as a whole is in the public domain. To do this you can use the exact same tools that we demonstrated in the Public Domain Treasure Hunter’s Kit for checking the copyright status of a book.

Magazines published 1923-1950 = Catalog of Copyright Entries

Magazines published 1951-1963 = Copyright.gov

 

Magazines published in 1950 = Catalog of Copyright Entries AND Copyright.gov

 

There’s few minor differences in how you search the records…

When searching for magazine titles at Catalog of Copyright Entries, you want to check the “Renewals For Periodicals” section of each year involved rather than the “Renewals for Books and Submissions to Periodicals” like you would for books.

When searching for magazine titles at Copyright.gov, I usually find it helpful to “Set Search Limits” to “Serials” so that the search results only bring back periodicals (serials – magazines).

If you find no evidence that the magazine has been renewed for copyright protection (no renewal found on file), then the magazine as a whole is in the Public Domain. Once you know that the magazine itself is in the public domain, that’s an excellent first start. If the magazine is NOT in the public domain, you can’t use any article from that magazine regardless of whether the article itself was renewed or not. If the magazine is in the public domain, then you can safely begin to check the copyright status of the individual articles within that magazine.

STEP #2 – Determine If The Article You Want To Use From The Magazine Is In The Public Domain

Now we move on to checking the status of any articles you want to use…

Same tools again for the years involved.

The major difference is that when searching at Catalog of Copyright Entries, you’ll find renewals for articles in the “Renewals for Books and Submissions to Periodicals” section for each year involved (I have no idea why the copyright office did that but there it is).

At Catalog of Copyright Entries, you should search by article author name first, if no author is given credit in the magazine, you can try searching by article title but from experience, usually if there’s no author given credit than the article is in the public domain (as long as the magazine is too).

At Copyright.gov, you should search by both article author name and article title.

Usually, if you actually find a separate renewal for the article, the renewal record will also list the magazine (with title and year) that it was published in – this is helpful for verification purposes.

Hope this helps.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Thanks Barbara!

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Comments

  1. Shirley says

    Thank you this is just what I needed, I was sort of on overload!

    Just a quick question. I bought some old Look and Life magazines from the 60’s at a yard sale. They are full of great advertising pictures in particular. Do you think it would be okay for me to cut some of them out and matte them to sell on eBay?

    Again, thank you for much.

    Shirley

  2. says

    Hi Shirley,

    If all you are going to do is cut out the ads and such and matte them for a one time sale (one ad at a time of course), there’s no problem with that. If you started reproducing the ads to sell in mass quantities though, then you’d have to make sure that magazines and the ads are in the public domain : )

    It’s the same principle as selling a used book on ebay. Nobody is going to tell you you can’t sell your used book on ebay but if you started making copies of that same book to sell over and over again, then you’d have a problem – unless the book is in the public domain of course.

    Make sense?

    Thanks Shirley!
    Logan

  3. Kim Gillett says

    Debra & Logan,

    You guys rock. My whole online marketing plan is changing rapidly since I discovered your website and bought your kit.

    I do have two questions that I haven’t found anywhere.

    Are the ads in public domain magazines and newspapers actually public domain? I understand how to check the artwork and articles. But if I like the Kraft ad can I use it?

    Is it plagiarism if I use a public domain article and slap my name on without doing any editing? I know you said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we can use the content in any way but does it include that kind of use? Same with images I guess. Do I need to include the illustrator/photographer’s name on the image when I sell it?

    Thanks for putting all the effort into this site. I love it!

    Kim

  4. says

    Hi Kim,

    Ads in Public Domain magazines ~ I think we have an article about this on here somewhere but basically unlike internal photographs and individual articles, advertisements in mags were required to have their own copyright notice affixed in order to obtain copyright protection. In pre-1963 magazines, if an ad doesn’t have a copyright notice, it’s in the Public Domain. If it does have a notice, then it’s protected for 28 years after publication at which point it would have to be renewed to retain protection.

    The crazy thing is that you’ll find that most advertisers never bothered to place copyright notices on their ads so you’ll find the majority of them are in the Public Domain. Just be careful about how you reuse ads from well-known companies that are still around today like Kraft. Even if you find a Public Domain Kraft ad, you still want to make sure you don’t reuse the ad in such a way that it potentially violates their trademark protection.

    In regards to the plagiarism question, for some reason I’ve had several questions about that over the past week. I’ll adddress that in an article this week on the blog.

    Thanks Kim!

  5. Pauline says

    I have some old ‘Galerie’ art magazines from 1925, 1926. These magazines were edited/published/printed in Czechslovacia and distributed through New York into USA and Canada. The magazines are copies of paintings/etchings from artists back to 1880s. I cannot find the magazine on the Catalogue of Copyright entries.
    My question is, can I reproduce the images in these magazines and resell the reproduced images? I do not know where to search for these paitings/etchings?
    Can you help.
    Thanks,
    Pauline

  6. Justin says

    Thanks for your helpful article. Unfortunately I’m still a little unclear on how to search for a renewal on a particular magazine. I’m specifically interested in a New Yorker from 1938. I see it listed in the original Catalog of Copyright Notices (scanned into Google Books) for 1938. So do I have to look for a renewal in every year’s Catalog after that… or only, for example, in the 1966 Catalog (1938 + 28 years later)? I searched the online Catalog at Copyright.gov for 1966 and New Yorker and I didn’t see any “renewals” listed… for earlier issues/articles, only things from that year. So I guess I’m unclear about where to find “renewals”. Please help if you can. Thanks!

  7. says

    Hi Justin,

    I “think” you are asking this – You want to know if an entire magazine is in the public domain? Which is different than researching a specific article in the magazine?

    There is a difference. First you must find out if a magazine is in the public domain – and then you must research the article you want to use. And… if there are photographic images that you want to use – you must research those as well.

    You don’t need to find a “renewal” for a specific issue or article.

    Be sure to read this article: How To Research Magazines

  8. Justin says

    Hi Debra, thanks for your reply. Yes, basically I was trying to find out if an entire magazine was in public domain. I still don’t quite understand though. Based on your link above, you searched the copyright.gov database for a magazine (Profitable Hobbies) that was published in 1954, yet the .gov database only goes back to 1978 (it says so in your screenshot – http://www.publicdomaintreasuremap.com/images/deb-research-mag1.gif). So I don’t quite understand how no results in that search would confirm that it’s public domain? Wouldn’t you have to search in the Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1954 to check (http://books.google.com/books?id=JBghAQAAIAAJ)? Also, if something IS copyrighted (either the entire issue, or an article), would one then have to check for a renewal? And if so, that would be in the Catalog for 28 years after publication date (for stuff from 1923 – 1963)? Sorry, so many questions.

    Also, aside from all that, what I’m really trying to do is make sure it’s ok to post an entire cover or two on a blog entry. Actually, since I’m not selling it or claiming it as my own work, and I’d be using it for journalistic use (I just want to show and talk about it, and credit the original publisher), wouldn’t that be fair use and it wouldn’t matter if it’s copyrighted?

    Thanks again for your help.

  9. says

    From what I understand- you are saying that I have to search if an individual *issue* of a magazine is in the public domain, and then the articles in that issue- correct?

    For example- Woman’s World still prints magazines to this day, but any issue that did not have its copyright renewed from- say the 1930s would be in the public domain? Correct?

    I just bought a stack of women’s magazines from the 20s and 30s off ebay and am excited to do some research and use any public domain content on my new site- HomeschoolCommons. Whatever is found to be copyright I will use in other projects.

    So- if I understand you article right I would search for a renewal of a 1931 magazine issue in the 1959 records- then research the individual articles I want to use as well. Please correct me if I am off-base!
    Aadel´s last blog post ..First Book of Drawing

  10. says

    Hi Aadel, that is correct…you must first check the specific individual magazine issue you are working with and make sure its copyright protection was NOT renewed. THEN proceed to checking the specific individual article with this same magazine issue to make sure its copyright protection was not renewed. Magazine issue first, then individual articles.

  11. says

    Hi Debs
    Please could you tell me where to go to find copyright details of ENGLISH magazines? Specifically a ‘Country Life’ magazine of sept. 1918.
    Any help you can give would be most gratefully received!

  12. Ruth says

    Is a Woman’s Day from 1963 still under copyright? I have a pattern from the magazine that people keep asking for. Can I reproduce and sell the article/pattern?

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