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Is the book of Hendrik Willem van Loon in public domain now?

Posted: Thu May 05, 2016 12:09 am
by Halie0201
I noticed that Hendrik Willem van Loon was dead in 1944, so I think his books should be in the public domain now. Can I use some chapters of his book The Story of Bible on my website?

Posted: Thu May 05, 2016 7:29 am
by AndyJ
Hi Halie,

The short answer is yes.

But, not for the reason you think it may have entered the public domain. Here's the long answer:

Because Hendrik van Loon wrote the majority of his books in America, and was from 1919 an American citizen, we need to apply US copyright law to see discover if his works are in public domain.

Before 1976 the system which operated in the USA was that for any work to gain copyright protection, it had to be registered with the Copyright Office. After registration, the initial period of protection was for 28 years and it could be renewed in the 28th year up to a total of 56 years. Usually the start date would be at or around the date of publication, but not always. Indeed sometimes authors and publishers forgot to register their works, or equally importantly, place a mandatory copyright notice on a work, and so such works would fall into the public domain almost immediately. The second thing which happened was that the renewal registration was frequently not carried out and so again the work might come into the public domain at that point.

With the coming into force of the 1976 Copyright Act the system changed to the one we had in the UK at the time, with copyright being based in the lifetime of the author plus, then, 50 years. Various arrangements were put into the Act to deal with those works which already existed under the old system. Anything which was published in the USA before 1923 automatically passed into the public domain, but the situation for works published between I January 1923 and 1 January 1964 was much more complicated and depended on whether a work was in its first 28 year registration period, and whether or not it had been re-registered. The Copyright Office have published guidance (pdf) on how to navigate this complicated issue.

As van Loon's Story of the Bible was published in 1923 it could have potentially come under the transitional arrangements, assuming that it had been correctly registered at the time of publication. However while it was correctly registered in 1923 it appears not to have been re-registered and so fell into the public domain in 1952. This was well before the transitional arrangements might have extended the copyright term to 2018, had it been re-registered. You can even download the book in digital format for free by using the links on the right hand side of the registration entry shown above.

Posted: Thu May 05, 2016 7:34 am
by Halie0201
Hi Andy! Thank you for your reply!

Then what about the Chinese translation of this book? Can I use it for free in the same way?

Posted: Thu May 05, 2016 12:28 pm
by AndyJ
Hi Halie,

It will all depend on the date of the translation and where the Chinese edition was first published. A separate copyright will exist for a Chinese version and since that copyright might have to be calculated on the lifetime plus system, the chances are that the translation may well still be in copyright. See this thread for more detail about copyright in translations.

However if the translator was either a US citizen or the translation was first published in the USA, then the system I explained in the previous posting will apply. This means that if the Chinese version was correctly registered (assuming it was published before I January 1964) and re-registered if necessary, it could well still be in copyright in the USA as the term in those circumstances is 95 years from the date of publication.

If the version was first published in China, then their copyright law is the one to follow. The term under Chinese law (pdf in English) is the lifetime of the author (the translatior in this case) plus fifty years.