Current US law extends copyright protection for 70 years after the date of the author’s death. (Corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication.) But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years (an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years). Under those laws, works published in 1955 would be passing into the public domain on January 1, 2012.
What might you be able to read or print online, quote as much as you want, or translate, republish or make a play or a movie from? In this centennial year of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic (April 15, 1912), how about Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember? Lord first published A Night to Remember in 1955. If we were still under the copyright laws that were in effect until 1978, A Night to Remember would be entering the public domain on January 1, 2012 (even assuming that Lord or his publisher had renewed the copyright). Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2051. This is because the copyright term for works published between 1950 and 1963 was extended to 95 years from the date of publication, so long as the works were published with a copyright notice and the term renewed (which is generally the case with famous works such as this). All of these works from 1955 won’t enter the public domain until 2051.