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.