I recently did a buttload of research on U.S. copyright laws, for both my own writing (thanks, Faker’s Guide to the Classics) and as a presenter on a panel discussing copyright for authors. I’ve condensed that info here to focus on the basics, plus links on where to find more info as well as how to do your own research on copyrighted works.
Anything before 1923:
Public domain for all!
From 1923 to 1963:
Go forth and research: Catalog of Copyright
Author had to refile for copyright after 28 years. If they didn’t refile, have at it. Their copyright has since expired. If they did refile, it extended copyright for an additional 67 years, for a total of 95 years.
Copyright was automatically renewed for an additional 67 years, so these works automatically get a term of 95 years.
From 1978 to present:
Author’s life + 70 years automatically, upon creation of the work
To see if a copyright has been filed from 1978 and later: Database of Copyright Office
On Fair Use:
“The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”
Copyright exists from the moment a work is created. So it’s unnecessary for authors to put a copyright notice on manuscripts before sending them out.
For full copyright protection, file within 90 days of publication. Publisher generally takes responsibility for filing copyright, but it usually states who is responsible for that in your contract.
You cannot copyright a book title.
You cannot copyright a recipe—but you can copyright how the recipe is written, i.e., the language used in the recipe instructions.
Popular classics still under copyright:
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence (1928)
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1931)
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (1937)
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945)
1984, George Orwell (1949)
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller (1949)
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
The Crucible, Arthur Miller (1952)
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952)
Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954)
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957)
Trademark is different than copyright in that a specific word, slogan, image or logo is protected. BUT each trademark application must specify which areas the trademark covers. So a trademark for the logo of a business that makes pots and pans applies to cookware and related items, but doesn’t apply to sporting goods or something else unrelated. (Unless they’ve also filed for trademark covering that as well.)
To search for whether a term or image is copyrighted: United States Patent and Trademark Office
Trademark, Patent, or Copyright? (official definition of and distinction between trademark, patent, and copyright in US law)
Information Circulars and Factsheets (basically the FAQ for copyright; each pdf answers common questions or how-to’s of copyright in the U.S.)