Ask Author Law

Lucky author can publish a new edition of an old book.

December 31, 2015

Tags: Copyright Renewal, Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright Office, Publishing, Books, Contracts, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Journalism, Authors, Biography

Q: I am the author of a childrenís biography that was published in 1965 by a publisher that has long since gone out of business. I didnít know any better at the time, so I signed the copyright over to the publisher. The book has been out of print for years, but there was no reversion of rights or out of print clause in the original publishing contract, as nearly as I can recall (although I canít find the original contract). There is now a lot of interest in the subject of that book because of a recent hit movie and the upcoming hundredth anniversary of one of the events in the subjectís life. Iíd like to approach other publishers about a new edition of this book, but I assume I canít because I signed away the copyright. What, if anything, can I do? Can I write a totally new biography? If so, what will it take to make it a new book that I can copyright in my own name?

A: Youíre in luck. Your book was written and published under the old copyright law, which was changed in 1976, with the changes going into effect on January 1, 1978. Under the old law, a copyright had a term of 28 years and could be renewed for another 28. The new law eliminated copyright renewal and created a single term of the authorís life plus 70 years.

If your book had been published just a couple of years earlier, and the first term of the copyright had not been renewed by either you or the publisher, your book would have entered the public domain at the end of the 28th year and neither you nor the publisher would own the copyright. However, for works copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977, the new and amended copyright law provides for an automatic 47 year renewal without any requirement that the renewal be registered with the copyright office. Your book, therefore, is still protected by copyright. Now the question is, who owns the copyright during the term of renewal. The law says that ONLY the author may claim renewal, and thatís you. The publisher, even if still in business, has lost all rights in the work.

You should definitely claim your renewal by registering it with the copyright office. To do that, obtain Form RE from the Copyright Office and follow the instructions. In order to properly fill out the form, you will need a copy of the original registration or the original registration number. To find that, youíll probably have to search the Copyright Office records or hire someone to do it for you. There are copyright search firms that can do this quickly or you can pay the copyright office to do it for you, although this can take some time. The Copyright Office charges a reasonable hourly fee to search and most searches take less than an hour, but there can be a time lag before you get the search results. The private search firms charge more, but you can get results within a day or two. You can get more information about renewal of copyrights by calling the Renewals Section of the Copyright Office at (202) 707-8180.

Any author of a work copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 should protect the work by renewing the copyright registration. This is particularly important if the original copyright was assigned to the publisher or someone else, because only the author is entitled to renew and you can get those lost rights back by completing the renewal process.

Disclaimer: Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. Readers are reminded that this information is for general information only and that any specific legal problems should be discussed with an attorney. Questions are presented anonymously, with the askerís privacy protected. Some are composites based on issues I have been asked about in the past. Some were asked at workshops and conferences where I have presented. (more…)