Intellectual Property Law
Intellectual Property Law Questions? Ask a Lawyer
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Sounds like an interesting book and project! The problem here is that while the work is fairly old, it is not yet old enough to be sure that it could not possibly be protected by copyright (and therefore, free to use).
Books of that era could still be protected by copyright if the copyright holder (could be a publisher, could be a writer, could be an illustrator or an heir) properly filled out a copyright extension application within the legal time frame before the original copyright expired.
These things are not an issue with newer copyrights -- but they can be with older ones. Here's a chart that can help show the dates and deadlines for when things leave copyright protection and enter what is known as the "public domain" so anyone can use them freely.
As you'll see on this chart, copyrights for these older works were often not renewed (only about 15 % were properly renewed). But if a work was in this minority, the copyright continues as noted on the chart.
If properly renewed, anyone can use the material freely (without violating copyright) 95 years to the day after the work was first published. That would be sometime in 2025.
If the work was first published in another country and only published in the U.S. later, then there are different rules (you can see on linked chart).
The US Copyright Office has a database that, while far from perfect, can provide some guidance as to whether there's someone who owns the copyright and it is still in force (remember, there could be heirs, or the copyright could have been sold or given away -- death does not extinguish copyright)
In addition to having gaps, the database is much less useful generally for things registered with the Copyright Office before 1978. Some people actually go to the Library of Congress in Washington to do copyright research -- as there's an old fashioned card file for those older items. They also hire a lawyer or research firm that specializes in copyright records research. It unfortunately all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.
I wish you all the best with your project!
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