As mass digitization progresses, and as copyright terms grow longer, we now have access to much more literature from 1922 and the years before it than from the years that come soon after it. This graph by Eric Crampton, based on research by Paul Heald, is one illustration of the problem. Copyrights from 1922 and before have expired in the US (where much of the mass digitization to date has been done); copyrights from 1923 or later may or may not still be in force, and research is required to determine whether a book from after 1922 is still in copyright in the US.
As it turns out, many of them are in the public domain, particularly those published in the US between 1923 and 1963, whose copyrights had to be renewed to stay in force. Some organizations, most notably HathiTrust, have opened access to hundreds of thousands of book volumes by researching renewals and other information on books with non-obvious copyright status. In contrast, their open access collections of periodicals and other serials, like those at JSTOR and the Library of Congress, end at 1922.
Why not continue serials past 1922 as well? One reason is that copyright clearance for serials is quite a bit more complicated than for books. Like a book, an issue of a serial can be copyrighted and renewed. But an individual contribution to a serial can also be copyrighted and renewed on its own. So in order to see whether a serial volume is in the public domain, you need to check a lot more potential copyrights. 
However, now that all active copyright renewal records are represented online, it’s possible to check whether a particular serial issue or volume is under copyright. It hasn’t been feasible to do it quickly until now, though, because a lot of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, which has records of all copyright renewals, is only online in page-image form, and not as reliably searchable text. But over time I’ve been compiling an inventory of periodicals that have renewals of various sorts. That inventory has now reached the point where you can determine if periodicals have renewed copyrights, and when the first active renewal was made, with a few text searches.
Here’s what you search:
- First, look for the name of the periodical in my First Copyright Renewals for Periodicals web page. This will tell you if there were any issue renewals made between 1950 and 1977 (for publications between 1923 and 1950). It will also tell you if there were any contribution renewals made between 1950 and mid-1953 (for publications between 1923 and 1926). I’m still working on adding periodicals whose first contribution renewal was made after mid-1953, but the resources below can be used to find those.
- Second, search for the name of the periodical in Project Gutenberg’s compilation of copyright renewals. This is a large text file that includes both book renewals and periodical contribution renewals from mid-1953 to 1977. It doesn’t have periodical issue renewals, but those are covered in the other resources in this list, and the contribution renewals neatly pick up where my file above left off.
- Third, search for the name of the periodical in the US Copyright Office online database. This contains renewals both for periodical issues and for periodical contributions (and any other kind of renewal as well) from 1978 onward. So it picks up where my First Copyright Renewals file leaves off for issues, and where Project Gutenberg’s file leaves off for contributions. My “How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?” FAQ includes instructions on how to search this database.
If you search all three of these (using appropriate keywords and name variants– periodical names can vary over time) and don’t find any mention of the periodical, there’s a good chance there aren’t any copyright renewals you have to worry about. If you search them in the order above and do find mention of the periodical, you’ll have a good idea about when in the periodical’s run you have to start worrying about copyright renewals.
So far, I’ve found out that, just as most periodical issues of the mid-20th century do not have renewed copyrights, most periodical contributions of the mid-20th century don’t, either. I’ve been looking primarily at the 1920s so far, and most of the renewed contributions I’ve seen are fiction. Short stories and serialized novels appeared in a variety of periodicals, including upmarket magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, pulps like Weird Tales and Marriage Stories, and daily newspapers like the Oakland Tribune and Cincinnati Enquirer.
There are a number of nonfiction renewals as well, but these tend to be less common, and often only involve a few people. Many of these renewals are for feature articles or poetry by well-known figures. (Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example, published poems in a number of magazines, and renewed many of their copyrights.) Renewals in scholarly and trade journals are rarer still, and even more strictly limited to particular people. The widow of S. S. Goldwater, for instance, appears to be responsible for the only three active contribution renewals I have found in the Journal of the American Medical Association; she also renewed the articles he wrote for Modern Hospital.
Some periodical copyright renewals may be outliving the periodicals themselves. One contribution renewal I found was for an article in the January 1926 issue of New Eve, a magazine of flapper fashion, fiction, and photography published in New York. I have not been able to find any copy of that issue anywhere. The Internet Archive has a scan of the May 1926 issue; WorldCat knows of two rare book collections that have the April issue. And that’s it– I haven’t turned up any copies of the January issue, or any other issue, in library catalogs or book sites. When that issue enters the public domain, hopefully in a few years, there may be no copies left to scan. Maybe some still exist, but the collections that hold them haven’t been cataloged, or made their catalogs available online. Either way, these records point to useful work that libraries can do to preserve rapidly vanishing cultural resources of the 20th century.
It’s also clear that libraries can make public a lot of the scholarly and professional resources of the early and middle 20th century. Since scholarly and trade journals have a very low renewal rate, both for issues and contributions, and nearly everything published in those journals was original content (so one doesn’t have to worry about reprints from other publications), the content of many journals is completely, or almost completely, in the public domain well past 1922, in many cases as late as the early 1960s. Moreover, in many fields journal articles as much as 50 or 100 years old are still of research or scholarly interest. If libraries open up the content of mid-20th-century journals, scholars and readers could benefit at least as much as they do now from HathiTrust opening up the content of mid-20th-century books.
I’ll be continuing to sweep through periodical contribution renewals from the 1920s onward, and updating my “first periodical contributions” pages as I do so. But even with what I have now, the three-step renewal search I describe above is a powerful way to find out the copyright status of periodicals published in the US. I hope I’ll hear soon about good things libraries and readers are doing with them.
 The situation is even worse when copyright terms are based on an author’s lifetime, as is the case in most countries outside the US, and in the US for recent publications. You might need to check the lifespans of hundreds or even thousands of identifiable authors to see if a particular serial volume is in the public domain. (Back)
 Fine print caveats: These searches will not find renewals in other categories that might conceivably appear in a periodical, like images, music, and drama. However, there are very few copyright renewals for published images (and are all browsable in the Catalog of Copyright Entries), and music and drama only appear in certain kinds of periodicals. Also, searches on a particular publication might not turn up renewals for copyrighted materials that also appeared in other publications. This is mainly an issue for periodicals that commonly reprinted items, included book excerpts, or that ran syndicated material. Also, it’s possible that there are typos or other mistakes in the files that I or Project Gutenberg prepared, so if you want to minimize risk, you may want to double-check against the page images of catalog registration records, or the original Copyright Office records. Periodicals not published in the US may be exempt from copyright renewal requirements, but as I’ve noted before, many periodicals of non-US origin can be considered published in the US for the purpose of copyright law. Finally, I am not a lawyer; for legal advice, consult with appropriate counsel. (Back)
Hello, I recently sent over an email about a related grant proposal, I don’t know if I sent it to the correct email address however. I’d be very interested to discuss with you about how we might collaborate on metadata and retrodigitization work. The domain we’re focusing on is mathematics. Perhaps of broader interest: we’re also looking for ways to systematize the search, and contribute to crowdsourcing tricky retrodigitization and proofreading tasks.
Neat article, I’ll be sure to bookmark it – it’s always hard to tell what is copyright and what isn’t, but these steps will make it much easier. Thanks!