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Visitors to this site who are unfamiliar with copyright terminology and context should begin with the
step-by-step tree-view chart for answers about copyright law.

(see illustration at right)

Once readers have visited both the tree-view chart and one or more illustrations pages such as this one, they are advised to learn how courts have ruled on specific aspects of copyright by going to pages of Citations and Court Summaries and by reading the copyright laws themselves.  (The CopyrightData web site has all versions of the United States Copyright Act in effect from 1909 to the present.)

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This section poses questions to help the inquirer determine whether the work meets the definition of having been published, as codified within U.S. copyright law.

  • Performance or display of a work is not publication. Even nationwide broadcast of a work has been ruled to not be publication.A
  • Copyright does not protect ideas not put into tangible form. A
  • If copies of the work been distributed to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, this constitutes “publication.”
  • If the work has remained under the control of its creator, without copies being sold nor the work being provided to others for further distribution, it is not a “published” work. A
  • “LP” and “MP” in a Copyright Office registration number indicate that the registration was processed as a published motion picture. “LU” and “MU” indicate that the registration was processed as an unpublished motion picture. A
  • Published works copyrighted 1909-1977 were entitled to an initial term of 28 years and to a renewal term. The renewal term (counting later extensions) was 47 years for works copyrighted before 1923, and 67 years for 1923-and-later works.
  • Published works copyrighted 1978 and later receive different terms depending upon whether registration was by a corporation as opposed to a person (or persons).  Works copyrighted by persons are protected for the life of the creator(s) and seventy years thereafter.
  • Unpublished works are entitled to copyright for the life of the author plus a number of years afterward. For some works for which authors have long been dead and publication occurred by 2002, copyright duration extends through 2047.
  • Unpublished works that were registered for copyright with the Copyright Office from 1931 to 1963 were subject to the same rule as published works that copyright be renewed during the final year of the first term of copyright.  Failure to renew resulted in permanent loss of copyright protection. A
  • For specifics on the lengths of terms of copyright, see the copyright duration table on the tree-view chart page. A

Determining if there has been publication can mean looking at a fine line

Copies of manuscripts are sometimes offered to friends, colleagues, professionals in the same field, yet such limited distribution does not usually amount to “publication.”

With motion pictures and television, a large number of strangers — potentially the entire population of the United States — can be offered a chance to view a work, and yet the courts have said this amounts to at most “limited publication” rather than full-fledged publication as dealt with in some strict portions of the copyright laws.

Consider the following three continuums:

Continuum of publication for a motion picture:

Sale of authorized copies to the public
(DVD, VHS, 16mm “show-at-home” prints, etc.)(These may be either in addition to one of the below or without any other form of exhibition [such as “direct-to-video”])
General release, handled by multiple distribution offices whereby owner loses at least some extent of control
General release, handled by one distribution office under control of owner
Many screenings, always under the control of the owner
(Examples: “road show” engagements”)
One or a very few screenings, always under the control of the owner
(Examples: festival screenings, clubs screenings, one-night-only screenings)
Never offered to the public, not even a single showing

Continuum of publication for a television work:

Sale of authorized copies to the public
(DVD, VHS, etc.)(These may be either in addition to one of the below or without any other form of exhibition [“direct-to-video”])
Syndication, handled by one or more outside companies, whereby owner loses at some extent of control
Syndication, handled by one distribution office under control of owner, with prints explicitly transferred by lease rather than sale
Many broadcasts, always under the control of the owner
One or a very few broadcasts, always under the control of the owner
(Example: the NBC broadcasts of Peter Pan musical)
Never offered to the public, not even a single showing

Continuum of publication for an artwork (painting, sculpture, etc.):

Sale of authorized copies to the public
(These needn’t be full size — may include postcards, black-and-white photos of color paintings, 3D paperweight reproductions of large sculptures)
(example: Letter Edged in Black Press Inc., v. Public Building Commission of Chicago)
Exhibitions with no restrictions on copying
Exhibitions under conditions that allow (or fail to prevent) limited copying
(Example: journalists allowed to photograph artwork to illustrate newspaper story about it)
Many exhibitions, always under the control of the owner
One or a very few exhibitions, always under the control of the owner, never permitting copying or photographing
(example: American Tobacco Co. v. Werckmeister)
Never shown to the public, not even a single exhibition

The preceding continuums were created by the editor.  These continuums do not have a parallel in the copyright statutes.  Nonetheless, the delineations drawn above are ones that are made in court decisions, in isolated passages of the Copyright Act, and in the writing of a respected scholar of copyright law.

Interpreting the continuums:
The condition in the layer at the top of each of the three continuums is a manifestation of indisputable publication.  A creator whose work has been distributed in the manner outlined must accept that his work has achieved the legal threshold of publication, and such a creator or publisher must accept that he must comply with any applicable registration requirements if copyright protection is to be accorded by law.  On the bottom layer of each of the three continuums is a condition which is indisputably an instance of a work not published.  In such cases, the creator has always been protected by law (if not statutory law, it was common law), limited only by time restrictions imposed in the 1976 Copyright Act which eliminated protection for works still not published decades after the death of the creator.

In the middle layers of the continuums are various gradations between indisputable publication and indisputable lack of publication.  Those closest to the extremes are really just slightly different manifestations of publication and lack of publication which are itemized here only so that readers here can better understand that these conditions are mere variations not worthy of special legal status.

Nearest to the center of each continuum are the indistinct “borderline” cases which have required learned specialists in copyright minutia to discern the legal status.  Some of these conditions have resulted in verdicts that “limited publication” has taken place, with consequent carefully-structured decisions affecting the rights of copyright holders.  Key court decisions in this area are summarized on the “limited publication” Citations and Case Summaries page of this web site.

Watch Out for Works Not Published Immediately

Knowing when a work was created is not enough to determine the expiration date of the copyright.  For works first published in the United States before 1978, the term of copyright is determined by the date of publication, not the date of completion or of the creator’s death.  (Works published after 1978 other than those copyrighted by corporations are granted a term of copyright lasting the lifetime of the author and a specific number of decades thereafter.)  Because publication started the clock on a copyright in the 19th century, some works created during those one hundred years continue to enjoy copyright in the 21st century.

Emily Dickinson lived from December 10, 1830, to May 15, 1886, writing nearly eighteen hundred poems during her lifetime.  However, only about a dozen of that large output were published while she was alive.  A posthumous selection was published as a collection in 1890, and additional volumes were published during the 1890s.  Starting in 1914 and continuing through the 1930s, a series of volumes was published, with many previously-unpublished poems going into print for the first time.  As of year 2008, any work copyrighted 1923 or later still enjoys copyright (assuming compliance with requirements), so the combination of facts outlined here means that a poet who had been dead 37 years in 1923 was having works of hers start terms of copyright that would extend 95 years after that.  Works published for the first time the following decade will be in copyright even further beyond Dickinson’s death.  Had she lived more than a century later and had not published anything until 1978 or later, all of her works (whether or not published in her lifetime) would have copyright expire at the same time — ninety-five years after her death.  Had she died a British citizen in late 1911, all of her works would have had copyrights lasting her lifetime and fifty years thereafter, and thus all would have expired at the same time.  Because she was an American at a time when copyrights lasted a fixed, uniform period of time beyond publication, her works could remain in copyright a long time provided her heirs were willing to ration them, doling them out at intervals.

The saga of Dickinson’s copyrights doesn’t end with the series that went into the 1930s.  In 1955, an edition was published of Dickinson’s poems that respected the stylized punctuation and capitalization of Dickinson’s originals, without the editing of earlier editions.  As a result, aspects of the poems unique to the 1955 edition when Thomas H. Johnson published it may enjoy copyright further into the future than will the altered earlier versions.

Examples of long-unpublished work are not confined to that of a reclusive poetess or to works enjoyed in books or magazines.

Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” for his 1918 show Yip Yip Yaphank, but decided that its emotion did not fit the light patriot revue that his show was otherwise, so the song was removed.  Any rehearsals the song may have had do not constitute publication, and the song was not that year performed for an audience let alone issued as sheet music or a recording.  Twenty years later, the mood of the United States was different, and Irving Berlin then made it available to an American public eager to embrace the song on radio, in recordings, and as sheet music.  The period during which the copyright holders (which no longer included Berlin once he donated his rights to charity) could reap financial rewards did not suffer for the twenty years during which the song languished in the composer’s possession; instead, the law as it existed at the time set the publication date as the beginning of the copyright term.  (Put in other words: Berlin’s 1918 song has a copyright measured from 1938, because 1938 is when the song was first published.)

The lengths of terms can be determined from the tables on the tree-view chart page.  The tables are separated between published and unpublished works, and within tables by year of publication, lifetime of creator, and whether the copyright claimant is/are individual(s) or a corporation.


Illustrations: portraits of Irving Berlin which appeared on sheet music of his songs in (top) 1919 and (bottom) 1914.


Unpublished works are given a time limit on copyright eligibility

“Works in existence but not published or copyrighted on January 1, 1978: Works that had been created before the current law came into effect but had neither been published nor registered for copyright before January 1, 1978, automatically are given federal copyright protection. The duration of copyright in these works will generally be computed in the same way as for new works: the life-plus-70 [for works copyrighted by individuals] or 95/120-year [for corporate works] terms will apply to them as well.   However, all works in this category are guaranteed at least 25 years of statutory protection.  The law specifies that in no case will copyright in a work of this sort expire before December 31, 2002, and if the work is published before that date the term will extend another 45 years, through the end of 2047.”  (Information Circular 15a)


Why would it be necessary to guarantee that starting 1978 “in no case will copyright in a work of this sort expire before December 31, 2002”?  A simple answer: There were works that had never been published which were created by people who had been dead more than half a century.  A follow-up question: Why be concerned about works that no one was interested enough in publishing even when the works were new and the authors able to promote the works?  An incredible answer: A valuable work could surface worthy of as much legal protection and public attention as contemporary best-sellers.

Congress didn’t foresee it in 1976, but in 1990 there was discovered in a forgotten trunk the long-missing half of the original manuscript of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  This literary classic was shorn of entire chapters prior to publication, and it was now possible to offer readers lengthy passages by the esteemed author which had never before been put into print.  By beating the deadline of December 31, 2002, the expanded version of the book remains in copyright through the end of 2047.  (The text as first published in 1885 remains in the public domain.)
AdvHF_Page42-43.gif (13812 bytes)

below: title page of an early edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.   As was the case when this novel was young, a subtitle appeared beneath the main title.  The copy from which this image was duplicated, which is in the collection of the Library of Congress, shows that someone — presumably a Library of Congress employee — wrote behind the name Mark Twain that this name is a pseudonym of Samuel Longhorn Clemens.  (A section on pseudonyms appears on the next illustrations page of this web site.)

AdvHF_TitlePage_pt1.gif (170605 bytes) AdvHF_TitlePage_pt2.gif (5519 bytes)


The difference between published and unpublished versions of the same work
Using as example a television program

pub_vs_unpub.jpg (60230 bytes)
Different editions of the same work may be sufficiently different as to mislead people as to what level level of copyright protection might be enjoyed by a particular edition of the work.  The first six images are from a 1959 television program which illustrates the point.  When You Bet Your Life was first broadcast, it was transmitted nationally on a single evening on a single network.  No copyright registration was taken out, nor was a copyright notice put onto the program.  The program could be regarded as unpublished, which meant no formal copyright actions were necessary.  The top three images on the left are of this network (unpublished) version.  250 episodes of the series were subsequently sold to local stations through syndication.  With each station having its own copy of each offered episode, it can be validated that publication had now occurred.  The syndicated episodes were retitled The Best of Groucho and each carried a 1961 copyright notice. The top three images on the right are from the syndicated (published) version.  Note the differences.
Unpublished Version Published Version
JunkoNetwork1.jpg (31239 bytes) When the show was syndicated, the image was cropped so that viewers to a local station would not see the “NBC” on the microphone. JunkoSynd.jpg (24250 bytes)
Junko3ShotNetwork2.jpg (32383 bytes) Viewers to the network broadcast (left) had seen a sponsor’s logo on shots filmed from a particular distance.  Local stations sold  advertising separately from the networks, so the original advertising was not incorporated into the copies delivered to local stations. Junko3ShotSynd2.jpg (27329 bytes)
JunkoFarShotNetwork2.jpg (32082 bytes) The image at the immediate left helps substantiate that that the sponsor’s logo on the image above left was not built into the backdrop seen behind the people.  The network broadcast (left) and syndicated version (right) were identical insofar as these distant shots were concerned.  (The image at right shows host Groucho Marx removing the exploded innertube from around the head of the man who had inflated it with his lungs (in the image at left).) JunkoBlowupSynd.jpg (26644 bytes)
GrouchoWinboard_network.jpg (32796 bytes) When the series filmed this January 1958 broadcast (see left), the sponsor’s logo was physically part of the background.  The image at right (from syndication) demonstrates how that logo was removed.  The image was cropped to eliminate the top, necessitating removal of picture area at the sides.  Half of the woman went outside the frame.  Notice that the “NBC” on the microphone has been obscurred by light added optically. GrouchoWinboard_synd2.jpg (31112 bytes)
At left: the copyright notice which appeared on all Best of Groucho episodes syndicated.  (The year in the notice represents the delay between network broadcast and syndication sale.)  The original broadcasts did not require notice and did not have them. BestGrouchoCopyr.gif (9875 bytes)
Those wanting more demonstration of the differences between versions can look at three images on a supplement page.  Launch supplement page
The above statements about “Published” and “Unpublished” statuses refer to the laws in effect at the time of the network broadcasts and the initial syndication.  When the full, uncropped version of these particular episodes of the program was published on DVD in 2004, it was with a copyright notice and was under new laws that (a) don't require copyright notice for copyright to be enforceable and (b) don't require copyright registration for copyright to be valid.

Additional Examples Separating Unpublished From Published Versions

On August 9, 1930, movie producer Hal Roach previewed a cut of his comedy Pardon Us.  The length was 70 minutes.
After new scenes were added and others removal, the completed version of Pardon Us was released August 15, 1931, at 56 minutes.  A musical score had been added in the interim where before dialogue had not been underscored by melodies.The release version was copyrighted September 10, 1931.  (Registration number: LP 2460)
Renewal registration on the copyright on the 1931 release version was filed September 19, 1958 (Renewal registration R221581)In 1958, the preview version had yet to be shown outside of limited screenings, so neither copyright registration nor renewal was required at this time.  The few preview screenings constituted “performance” of that version, but never had there been sufficient distribution such as to constitute “publication.”
1985: A home-video release was made of a 65-minute version of the film culled from both the release version and at least one preview version.  The insertion of the long-unseen footage is apparent because the musical accompaniment abruptly stops whenever a line, a dialogue exchange or a full scene has been newly incorporated into the 1931 release version.  One song is repeated, because the new compilation contains one performance of the singers appearing on camera (as they had in the preview version) and one performance where they are offscreen while the starring comedians perform a wordless comedy routine (as they do in the release version).The new version was entitled to copyright protection as a new work.  The nine minutes of “new” material had been filmed 35 years earlier, but had not been “published” prior to 1985, so copyright on those portions had not been required prior to then.  Under the copyright act in effect when this version was published, copyright registration is no longer required for there to be protection.  (The requirement for copyright notice still applied.  At the least, the earlier copyright notice was reproduced on the new version.)
More recently: yet another new version of the 65-minute edition was assembled, this time adding repeated bits of musical soundtrack to cover up the silences.Beginning with works published March 1, 1989, copyright notice is no longer required, and it remains the case that registration is no longer required.  This version will remain under copyright even when earlier versions have entered the public domain, because it contains new editing.  Although this latest version no new material — just new repeated use of snippets of music already protected by prior copyright on the release version of the film — it is a new work.  As with all new works that utilize earlier works, the new copyright does not extend the copyright protection on the earlier releases.
The illustrations page on copyright renewal and the illustrations page on researching copyright status provide additional information about renewal registrations.

The provisions under copyright law permitting new copyright protection for new material (and even new editing) are covered in the illustrations page on derivative works.


The examples related to You Bet Your Life (Best of Groucho) and Pardon Us concern works that were first presented in unpublished versions prior to being issued in multiple copies as published works.  The opposite was involved when the feature film East of Borneo (1931) was adapted into a short film titled Rose Hobart (1936)

East of Borneo was a feature-length movie produced and released by Universal Pictures in 1931, starring the talented but later-unsung actors Charles Bickford and Rose Hobart.  Universal copyrighted it as a published motion picture photoplay August 24, 1931, registration number LP2424.  After distribution to theaters on 35mm film, it was made available on 16mm.

Joseph Cornell was a New York-based artist who rather than using paint, plaster or marble instead rearranged “found objects” (including images).  His first foray into using movies for this purpose was in rearranging a 16mm print of East of Borneo into a short film made up of some chronologically-jumbled shots from the feature, often those focusing on the leading lady, whose name became the title of his avant-garde short: Rose Hobart.

One showing took place in 1936, and that was in an art gallery.  After that, there would be no more public exhibitions for over two decades, and then when there were, display of the work would again occur in art galleries.  Only one print was in existence.  (This situation didn’t change until after the short developed a reputation of being culturally important.  In 1969, Anthology Film Archives obtained the original and made copies.)  The work was being exhibited and performed, but was not published.

Rose Hobart didn’t require formal copyright notice or registration for the reasons given above.  The manner of distribution simply differed far too markedly from those of East of Borneo which had necessitated formal copyright notice and registration on the 1931 film.  Additional information concerning East of Borneo and Rose Hobart is provided on the illustrations page on copyright registration.

(Readers unfamiliar with the concept of a “derivative work” should understand that Rose Hobart is a derivative work of East of Borneo.  A variety of examples make this concept clear on the illustrations page on derivative works.  Unlike derivative works made with the knowledge and consent of the maker of the original work, Rose Hobart is an unauthorized derivative work.  The subject comes up again on the Examples Spread Over Several Illustrations Pages page.)



The closing credits of this episode of the 1950s American television series Front Page Detective makes clear that the production company was different from the distributor who contracted for sales and deliveries to local stations all over the country.

Under the Copyright Act in effect from 1947 to 1977, “In the interpretation and construction of this title ‘the date of publication’ shall in the case of a work of which copies are reproduced for sale or distribution be held to be the earliest date when copies of the first authorized edition were placed on sale, sold, or publicly distributed by the proprietor of the copyright or under his authority […]” (§ 26).  As explained above regarding the You Bet Your Life/Best of Groucho series, the mere broadcast (what the law calls “performance”) of an episode does not constitute its being published.  An owner may keep such a tight control over a work that it can be deemed never to have “published.”  However, the passing of control from production company to distributor to local stations, as occurred here (shown by the facts stated on these title screens), demonstrates likely publication.

(Those wanting to know more should study the court verdicts summarized on this web site uner the heading Limited publication of movies.)


This page provides examples on Publication, so the passages on
• “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
• “East of Borneo” / “Rose Hobart”
• “Pardon Us”
• “You Bet Your Life” (“Best of Groucho”)
only concern aspects of these works relevant to Publication.
Other aspects are discussed on other illustrations pages.  All of the aspects are itemized and discussed on the examples page.  (Go there)


You’ve seen the illustrations —
You’ve read the captions —
Now read passages from the law
and read what the courts decided.

Read Citations and Case Summaries on:
Publication (including: tangible form, fixation, serials publication)
Limited publication (including of movies)
Performance is not publication

    •     •     •

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