Everybody’s Library Questions: Newspaper copyrights, notices, and renewals

Because I blog about  copyrights for serials, I occasionally get questions in comments to my posts about determining what exactly is copyrighted in those serials.  I’ve been slow to answer them in the comments threads, partly because some of them get a bit complicated to answer there.  So instead, I’ll answer them in posts of their own, so I can spend a bit more time on them, and so that others can more easily make their own comments.

Below I respond to one of the questions asked in a comment to my earlier post “Why pay for what’s free? Finding open access and public domain articles”.  While I’m answering these questions to the best of my knowledge, please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and should not be relied on for legal advice.  Much of what I say below is based on my guide “Determining copyright status of serial issues”, which I recommend for folks who want to know more details.

In a comment to my earlier post, Steve Jones asks in part

“When I look at an newspaper I can never find a copyright notice on them? Do they require them? For instance the Dec 8th 1941 Minneapolis Star Journal…. Is [it] copyrighted? Can I republish a newspaper article in a book? Could the Newspaper file a copyright later, say at the end of the year? If I want to use it in a book do I have to pay[?]”

Prior to 1989, all US publications, newspapers included, had to have copyright notices on them in order to be copyrighted. Publishing an issue without such a notice would normally put it into the public domain.  (There are some exceptions to this rule for inadvertent omission or unauthorized publication, but those generally wouldn’t come into play for an established newspaper in the 1940s.)

Not all newspapers published with copyright notices. (Some may have figured that no one else would bother to copy their material until it was old news, for instance.)  Newspapers that did publish copyright notices put them in various places, but the most common places were the front page, particularly near the newspaper title (where it appears in recent issues of The New York Times) or the bottom of the page (where it appears in recent issues of the Philadelphia Inquirer), or in a “masthead” section that gives basic information about the paper’s editors, publishers, subscription details, and so on.  The masthead section could be put in various places, but common locations included page 1, page 2, the last page, and the editorial page.  (Magazines often printed their mastheads on their contents page.)

I don’t have easy access to any 1941 issues of the Minneapolis Star Journal, so I don’t know if they had copyright notices in them or not.  (They can be quite small.  Both the Times and Inquirer issues I looked at have them in smaller type than the rest of the pages they’re on.)  Before you determine that a serial issue you’re interested in lacked a copyright notice, make sure the copy you’re looking at has all of the pages that originally appeared in the issue (including the cover, in the case of magazines that had them).  An omitted or cut-off page might be where the  copyright notice had appeared.   A transcription of a newspaper issue that doesn’t include page images may omit things like the original copyright notices.

Let’s suppose, though, that there was a copyright notice in the December 8, 1941 issue of the Minneapolis Star Journal.  If so, the newspaper would have been copyrighted initially.  However, as with other US publications before 1964, that copyright had to be renewed in its 28th year, or it would expire.  Looking up this title in my first renewals inventory, I see that there was no such renewal (either for issues or contributions) mentioned there for that publication, and since all publications with renewed issues prior to 1950 should be represented there, I can conclude that the newspaper issue’s copyright has now expired.

(While newspapers didn’t necessarily have to register their copyrights immediately, they did have to renew promptly 28 years from the start of the copyright– and that copyright would have started no later than the date of publication, even if registration was delayed.  So if a 1941 copyright was not renewed by the end of 1969, its former owner generally couldn’t go back later and try to renew it retroactively.)

Given that, you should be able to republish articles from a 1941 issue of the Minneapolis Star Journal in a US-published book(*) without permission or payment, as long as the articles in question originated in that paper.  (If they’re reprinted or syndicated from elsewhere, that articles might still have copyrights based on their publication elsewhere. But newspapers generally will include a copyright or reprint notice in those cases.)

Besides reprinted articles, there might be other parts of a newspaper that might still be under copyright even if the issue as a whole is not.  Major syndicates such as King Features and United Features were renewing copyrights to their comic strips routinely by this point, so any of their comics that ran in the December 8, 1941 issue of the Minneapolis Star Journal might still have active copyrights.

Newspapers, like many other periodicals, also had ads, which both Steve Jones and another commentator asked about.  It is possible for ads, or the images in ads, to also have their own copyrights.  But it’s quite rare for those copyrights to be renewed, and depending on what you’re doing, you might not have to get permission to reproduce a newspaper page even if it does have copyrighted advertising material in it.  In my next post, I’ll discuss ads in periodicals, and how one can research or respond to their copyrights, if they have any.

(* My answer in this post only concerns US copyright law.  Copyright law works differently in other countries, and some countries will keep something under copyright longer than the US will.  If this might be an issue for you, I recommend consulting an expert on international copyright laws.)

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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