Actually, Now I Am Even More Confused

Because copyright is a confusing issue, the folks over at the American Library Association have created this nifty little slider tool to help you determine if something is in the public domain or not. Frankly, at one time I thought there were some pretty simple rules of thumb you could use but now that I have seen this device, I am even more confused.

For instance, if you created a work before 1979 and published it before 2003, you might be protected. However, if during that time period, you happened to publish it between 1978 and March 1, 1989 and didn’t put a copyright notice on your work and never registered it, it is not protected and the work is in the public domain. Now given that I wrote a short story for school back in 1983 and did put a copyright notice on it, I think I am covered even though it was never registered or officially published. (Unless the photocopying of proud parents counts.)

Now I happened across an interesting situation. According to the chart, any work published before 1923 needs no permission and is in the public domain. Elmer Rice’s Adding Machine was first published in 1922 as noted here. While it was faithfully renewed, it should still be in the public domain. However, if you go over to the Samuel French website, they want $75 a performance for it.

So the question is, does Samuel French have the right to do so or not? The answer probably requires consulting experts. So despite the best intentions, this little device doesn’t really simplify matters at all and only serves to show us how little most of us really understand about copyright protection.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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