Can the same book have multiple copyright dates?

Yes, as you’ve probably noticed, a book may have multiple copyright dates.

This occurs if it is a derivative work of another copyrighted work. The US Copyright Act says a “derivative work” is “a work based upon one or more pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.” To be considered a derivative work, it must contain sufficient “originality” from the original work to qualify for copyright protection.

So, for example, a textbook publisher may want to create a book on United States Presidents. After every four years, when we get a new President or another Presidential term, instead of rewriting an entirely new book, the publisher may just want to add a new chapter. This textbook with multiple editions will list the copyright date of the current edition and all previous editions. With each new edition, copyrighted content is added and excised, so even though the structure of the book remains the same, the new volume of the book is a derivative work worthy of its own copyright.

Another example can be seen with the popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, which was originally written in Swedish by Steig Larsson. In order for English speakers to read it, it was translated into that language. While the book is still relatively the same, the translation is considered worthy of copyright itself, because translating languages does require sufficient “originality” on the translator’s part. So, the translation of a book will usually include both the copyright date of the original work and the later copyright date of the translation. 

But the Copyright Act states that a derivative work’s copyright protection “extends only to the material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work.” This means two things: (1) that when the copyright in the original work expires, copyright is not prolonged by the additional derivative works; the material added later is protected separately; and (2) that the author of the derivative work doesn’t own the original work’s copyright. 

Generally, the copyright date of the edition you hold in your hands will be the most recent date listed on the copyright information page.

If you are a writer either for literature or the screen and you’re looking to create a derivative work, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.

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