From: Rick Prelinger (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Jun 30 2008 - 04:46:22 PDT
The records that Google released only cover books at this time. They didn't scan them -- they simply aggregated renewal records scanned and proofread by volunteers from Project Gutenberg and Distributed Proofreaders. PG and DP are working on periodical renewals now, but slowly.
You can get some idea of whether a moving image work was originally copyrighted by consulting the Catalog of Copyright Entries for Motion Pictures. These cover copyrights from 1894-1978, roughly. We've scanned the 1894-1969 volumes, which you can search for at http://www.archive.org/details/prelinger_library. These volumes do not contain renewal info, but there is some renewal info in a series of expensive books known as "Superlists" which can be found at some libraries.
Post 1978-copyright registrations and renewals for post-1950 works may be found in the Copyright Office electronic database, available from http://www.copyright.gov. Sorry, but I don't have web access at the moment, so cannot give specific urls.
None of these resources are complete, and none list works of non-US origin. And copyright status of a work depends on many factors, including manner of publication and presence or absence of a copyright notice in legal form.
I very highly recommend Stephen Fishman's book "The Public Domain," published by Nolo Press. It's an excellent and far-reaching resource on how to determine copyright status in all media, and it is mostly on the money. No one else has published a book that is so full of information and tackles many difficult points of copyright law. When it comes to copyright, people tend to believe all sorts of things (typically what they want to believe) and Fishman dispels rumors and sloppy thinking. The book is a great value.
Many works that we would group under the avant-garde/experimental umbrellas may actually be in the public domain, as artists weren't always crackerjack about affixing copyright notices or renewing copyrights. But I'd suggest that the question of whether or not to reuse these kinds of works is less about legality than what you feel about the rights of artists, and about the kind of use you may wish to make of them. To me it isn't as simple as reusing an old, corporate-produced film.
Prelinger Library & Archives, San Francisco
Board President, Internet Archive
For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.