It is easy for court decisions that are issued in December to get overlooked in the holiday crush. Some Appeals Court rulings in the important case of Societe Civile Succession Richard Guino v Renoir are good examples. Rebecca Tushnet has written on the trademark aspects of the decisions, but I haven't seen a discussion of the copyright decision. This is an important ruling that has implications for many mass digitization projects.
The case concerns sculptures created in France by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and published in France no later than 1917. Most commentators (including the Copyright Office) argue that because publication occurred before 1923, the works are now in the public domain in the U.S. As I discuss in footnote 12 of the copyright duration chart, however, a ruling in the Twin Books v Walt Disney case in the 9th Circuit (covering the western states) contradicts what everyone else assumes. In Twin Books, the court concluded that if a foreign work did not follow the requirements to secure copyright protection in the US, the work did not therefore enter the public domain in the US, but instead remained in effect unpublished for the purposes of US copyright law.
The District Court opinion in the Societe Richard Guino case harshly criticized Twin Books, but then found copyright infringement because it was forced to follow the opinion of its Appeals Court. Many of us hoped that an appeal would lead to a reversal of the Twin Books decision. Unfortunately, in the latest decision, the Appeals Court upheld the lower court's finding of infringement.
The good news, if there is any, is that in part the decision is based on the fact that a 3 judge panel can't overturn Twin Books by itself - it requires a decision by the full court. What is disturbing, however, is that unlike the District Court, there is no criticism of Twin Books in this decision. Instead the Court sings the praises of Twin Book's reasoning that a book that has only been published abroad isn't really published for the purpose of US copyright law.
What are the implications of this for digitization projects, especially those based in California (such as Google Books or the Internet Archive)? The decision makes it much, much harder to determine whether a book published abroad is in the public domain. I have written about how difficult it is to determine whether any individual post-1923 title had its copyright restored, but I assumed that pre-1923 works were public domain and that Twin Books would eventually be reversed. The newest ruling makes me less certain this will happen.
So what do Google, the Internet Archive, and other western digitization projects need to do if they do not wish to risk copyright infringement? First, the projects would need to determine if the works were ever published with a copyright notice. For the 9th Circuit, publication occurs (and the copyright clock starts ticking) when there is publication with notice. In the Societe Richard Guino case, copyright in the images found in the 1917 book was secured in 1984. Copyright in those images will endure until 70 years after Guino's death in 1973, or through 2043. Reproducing and distributing the 1917 book before 2044 would be a violation of the Societe's copyrights.
Second, the projects would need to see if the work was published in a Berne Treaty nation after 1 March 1989, when notice requirements were abolished.
Third, for those pre-1923 works that were never republished with a copyright notice or after 1 March 1989, the projects could determine the death date(s) of the author(s). If the authors all died before 1939, the works would be in the public domain in the 9th Circuit since, as "unpublished" works, the life+70 term would have expired. (Actually, any foreign work that was never republished and whose author died before 1939 would be in the public domain in the 9th Circuit, regardless of death date.)
Obviously, no project will be able to conduct this sort of copyright investigation. The safest course, therefore would be to select a date before which there is almost no chance that an author is still alive. Some UK projects (which have a blanket life+70 term) use 1868 to 1888 as the cut-off publication date, on the assumption that authors are probably at least 20 when their books appear, and then one estimates a subsequent life span to determine when the author is sure to be dead. (If you assume someone lives to 70, you can use the 1888 date. If you think the author will live to 90, then the 1868 cutoff must be used.) The problem, of course, is that this excludes much more material than the 1923 publication cut-off date that many of us use.
Bottom line: let's hope that this decision is appealed to the full Appeals Court, and that court finally replaces it's twisted logic in Twin Books with the clear certainty of copyrights restored under 104(a).