Copyright and Historic Newspapers

If you have used Historic Oregon Newspapers online or the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, you might have noticed that most of the newspapers that are freely available for keyword searching and browsing were published before 1923. Why this seemingly arbitrary cutoff date, you might wonder? The answer is both simple and complex, and can be summarized in one word: copyright.

Public Domain

In the United States, anything published on or before December 31, 1922 is considered to be in the Public Domain, which means that it is not protected under copyright, and no copyright permission is needed to copy, digitize, or use the publication in any way. With the wealth of newspapers published before 1923, we have focused our digitization efforts primarily on Public Domain content first, making as much of this content available as possible while avoiding the extensive research that’s often needed to determine the copyright status of post-1922 publications.

Traditionally, works fall into the Public Domain 75 years from the first date of publication. However, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 essentially froze the Public Domain cutoff date at Dec. 31, 1922 until 2019, at which point works published in 1923 and beyond will start to fall into the Public Domain on a rolling basis. So, newspapers published in 1923 will be in the Public Domain in 2019, papers published in 1924 will join the Public Domain in 2020, and so on. (That is, unless another Act is passed freezing the cutoff date yet again…)

Creative Commons (1923-2014)

Any content that you might find on Historic Oregon Newspapers that was published between 1923-2014, has been made available to the public via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 3.0 United States License. For example, for Ashland High School’s Rogue News, which is available online from 1929-1973, we obtained permission from the publisher to digitize and make these pages available through Creative Commons. Under the Attribution-Non Commercial 3.0. license, users can “share, copy, re-distribute, remix, transform, and build upon the material, but appropriate credit must be given with a link to the license, and users must indicate if changes were made, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use” ( Any post-1922 content on the Historic Oregon Newspapers website may not be used for commercial purposes.

Current Newspapers (2015 and beyond)

We will soon be adding a selection of current Oregon newspapers, published in 2015 and beyond, to the Historic Oregon Newspapers website. The copyright status for these newspapers will vary by title. Stay tuned for more information.

Copyright Status Research

Copyright status becomes a bit more complicated for newspapers published after 1922. Luckily there are several online resources available to help guide and assist this process, such as the American Library Association’s Digital Copyright Slider or the U.S. Copyright Office’s Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, which will help you figure out where to start. Cornell University’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States page also provides a very clearly defined guide for identifying general copyright status based on year of publication and other factors.

  • Published between 1923 and 1963

An investigation will need to take place to determine the copyright status of works published between 1923 and 1963, since these publications may or may not be protected under copyright. During this time period, all publications containing a copyright notice were required to renew their copyright 28 years from the date of publication in order to protect all past issues and guarantee copyright protection for the following 67 years (for a total of 95 years from date of publication). For example, a newspaper first published in 1920 would have to renew copyright in 1948 in order to keep all past issues protected and to remain protected until 2015. However, if the paper did not renew copyright in 1948, all past issues would fall into the Public Domain and typically most future issues. If a publication was printed without a copyright notice during this time, it is also now in the Public Domain.

Luckily, the U.S. Copyright Office’s Catalog of Copyright Entries books have been digitized and are available for viewing online. These books can be viewed by year, from 1891-1978, and by type of publication (newspapers are classified as Periodicals), and reveal whether or not and when copyrights were registered and renewed. Some of the books are keyword searchable, and others are currently being indexed. The University of Pennsylvania has put together a guide with links to each of the digitized books by year.

  • Published between 1964 and 1977

Anything published during this time period without a copyright notice is in the Public Domain. If a copyright notice is present, the publication is protected for a flat rate of 95 years, with no action needed for renewal. A paper published in 1964 with a copyright notice will not move into the Public Domain until 2059, so if you want to use or digitize material published during this time period containing a copyright notice, copyright permission will definitely be needed.

  • Published between 1978 and present

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “A work that is created and fixed in tangible form for the first time on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death.” If the author is unknown, works published during this time period are guaranteed protection for 95 years. From 1978 to present, the Catalog of Copyright Entries can be accessed as an online database.

Additional Resources

Is It In the Public Domain? A Handbook for Evaluating the Copyright Status of a Work Created in the United States Between Jan. 1, 1923 and Dec. 31, 1977 and accompanying Flowchart Visuals – by Menesha A. Mannapperuma, Brianna L. Schofield, Andrea K. Yankovsky, Lila Bailey, and Jennifer M. Urban of University of California, Berkeley, Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic

How to Determine Whether a Work is in the Public Domain – by Dennis S. Karjala, Professor of Law, Arizona State University

Public Domain – Creative Commons Wiki

Library Digitization Projects and Copyright – Part 1 (Introduction and Overview) – by Mary Minow, Library Law Consultant,

Library Digitization Projects and Copyright – Part 2 (Expiration of Works into the Public Domain) – by Mary Minow, Library Law Consultant,

1 Comment

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One response to “Copyright and Historic Newspapers

  1. Pingback: Heppner Gazette-Times now online, 1923-1951! | Oregon Digital Newspaper Program

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