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We've had several questions about copyright law, specifically when certain properties and concepts will be outside of copyright.

And most recently

These questions seem well-received by the community but I'm struggling to see why they're on-topic when they essentially boil down to "When is a book written in xxxx out of copyright?", which doesn't really having any bearing on Sci-fi or Fantasy.

Should we just continue to allow these questions willy-nilly or should we put a stop to them entirely, perhaps by historically-locking the questions above and declaring future questions of this sort to be off-topic?

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  • I feel like the Asimov question is more "acceptable™" than the one about Percy Jackson, because it shows precedence to what inspired the question and such.
    – Clockwork
    Nov 19, 2023 at 20:44
  • The general rule is that any question relating to a work is on-topic, as long as that work is. Hence the tons of questions about the meaning of basic English words and phrases.
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 24, 2023 at 9:31
  • 2
    @OrangeDog That's not true at all. Questions about how realistic the science of a given work is are categorically off-topic. It would be possible to decide that language questions that don't require any special knowledge of the work are off-topic. It would similarly be possible to carve out an exception to "any question" for questions about the laws governing the status of a work. (Not just copyright; questions about, for example, differences in subsidiary rights or licensing rights between jurisdictions are also only on topic to the extent we deem it so.)
    – DavidW
    Nov 24, 2023 at 19:42

4 Answers 4

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No, they are not on-topic

I'm not 100% convinced myself they should be considered off-topic, but it seems to me that a more critical point of view should be available related to this question:

  • While these questions are not science questions, they are real-world.
  • They are not relevant to how fantasy or science fiction stories are told or interpreted.
  • They don't add anything valuable to the understanding or appreciation of science fiction or fantasy as genres or works of literature.
  • They are somewhere between difficult and impossible to answer accurately or confidently, and it's possible the actual answer is "never".
  • No answers of such questions from this site should be used by any askers in any meaningful way, because this is not an appropriate place or way to obtain information that a person will act on with legal consequences.
  • Only one of the askers of the four example questions is an active contributing member of the site.
  • Similarly to how questions about creating science fiction or fantasy stories are a better fit at World Building or Writing, these questions are clearly a better fit at Law.
  • All four example questions are arguably too broad, and it seems likely that most questions of this nature could be described as too broad (i.e., there is not a clear, verifiable answer available).
  • More nebulously, it's hard to see how such questions add value to the site. These questions stand apart from the other questions and are really about law and/or business, not science fiction or fantasy.

Also, per page zero of the Tour.

Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about science fiction or fantasy.

(This link and quote copied from another meta post by Valorum)

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  • Note that, as I commented on Sieur Rage's answer, copyright depends on year and country of publication, the governing law in that country at the time and all changes to the law since, and, if it was ever required in that country, that the copyright be properly registered and the registration maintained. So two works by the same author published in the same country may have different copyright status. The same work by an author may have different status in different countries...
    – DavidW
    Nov 24, 2023 at 15:30
  • @DavidW Yeah that is most of why I feel like any question about when a work or works by an author will enter public domain will be too broad and very difficult to answer. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:50
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    Note also that any given answer may be subject to change. This table of copyright duration led me to discover that Canada was Life+50 up to 2022, and Life+70 from 2023 onward. So an answer about Tolkien's copyright in Canada, that was posted in 2017, would now be wrong.
    – DavidW
    Nov 24, 2023 at 19:35
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One possibility: host a single, generic "how can I figure out when a given work passes out of copyright?" question which covers the standard cases. Then VTC as duplicate any question about a specific author/work which is already satisfactorily covered by taking that generic question and plugging in easily-available author/publication dates etc.

Some questions will not be covered by a generic answer. For instance, for a book published between [95 years before the present] and 1978, its current US copyright status will depend on whether its copyright was registered and maintained. It seems reasonable to allow that kind of question, where it pertains to a SF/F work and isn't easily searchable, and those cases seem unlikely to come up often enough to be annoying.

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    This seems more sensible to me. I'm happy with a copyright q that's specific to an actual SFF problem, for example Tolkien (where his works are a famously messy set of copyright and media rights)
    – Valorum
    Nov 17, 2023 at 12:12
  • But asking about a current author seems entirely generic. Why do we need more than one q if the answers are basically the same?
    – Valorum
    Nov 17, 2023 at 12:13
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    I'm on board with this approach, so long as we still assess individual questions on a case by case basis.
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Nov 17, 2023 at 12:47
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    I reluctantly have to downvote this, because an answer covering "the standard cases" would have to be about this long, which is way too long to fit in one answer. And even then, that page mostly only covers US copyright, so questions about non-US copyright would not be included (a large majority of the world lives somewhere other than the US, so we should probably try to include them...).
    – Kevin
    Nov 18, 2023 at 18:56
  • I think this might fit into "Questions that would require an extremely long essay answer" from the Tour
    – Clockwork
    Nov 18, 2023 at 20:41
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    @Kevin Point taken, but the scope of that page is much more general than would be needed here. I don't think we often get questions about non-creative works, works by governments, fonts and typefaces, and so forth. Nov 19, 2023 at 0:17
  • This seems like a way to decide not to decide. If they are on-topic, then we don't need a canonical question. If they are off-topic, then we don't need a canonical question. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:55
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No

It might seem a bit ruthless, but it's trivial to search Google for how to determine if a book is in the public domain. Even if the question is about copyright in a country other than the U.S., it's a question that's been asked a thousand times and answered almost as many times on the Internet. For the question to be valid here, IMO, it would need to demonstrate that a satisfactory search had been made to answer the question (downvote rollover: "this question does not show any research effort...").

Without some evidence of an attempt to answer the question themselves, the OP is simply using Stack Exchange as a free research service, which might be the practical truth but really isn't what SE intended.

If that seems too ruthless...

Then I would propose a question with a community wiki answer that lists each book queried on the Stack and the date it entered or will enter the public domain in each country, with the original question not just closed as a duplicate but deleted after directing the OP to the answer on the community wiki.

If the size of that wiki makes you queasy (it does me... worst case, eventually every SciFi/Fantasy book in every country...) it's a bit of evidence that the question should be off-topic.

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Yes, they're on-topic because sometimes copyright is very specific to the work or country

For instance, see how complicated the answer is for When will copyright restrictions expire on Tolkien's works?? A legal expert would need to know the ins and outs of the Tolkien Estate and who owns what.

There's no guarantee that there won't be some other work that's similar in this way.

So I feel like these questions can stay.

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    But only if they're 'difficult'? The most recent one is a bog-standard author. We could replicate the question with a million others just by swapping out the author name...
    – Valorum
    Nov 17, 2023 at 10:13
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    @Val just because a question is easy, doesn't by itself mean it shouldn't be asked or answered. It might not get a lot of upvotes, but it's still on topic.
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Nov 17, 2023 at 10:25
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    I'm always worried when a question is basically "is x this?" and x can be a near-infinite number of variables.
    – Valorum
    Nov 17, 2023 at 12:10
  • This seems more like a case against having a single canonical for these questions instead of why they would be on-topic (which would be better argued by drawing parallels to the other out of universe questions we accept here, including fandom questions).
    – Laurel
    Nov 19, 2023 at 23:33
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    "Yes, they're on-topic because sometimes copyright is very specific to the work or country". How does specificity of work or country connect with being on topic? I could ask about a very specific detail of the US National Electrical Code related to a power outlet to be installed in my house, and that wouldn't make my question on topic here. You could rightly point out that my question is not about science fiction or fantasy. I suggest that copyright is not about science fiction or fantasy. Would a question about how printing presses work be on topic? I hope not. Nov 24, 2023 at 6:24
  • "A legal expert would need to know the ins and outs of the Tolkien Estate and who owns what." no they don't. All they need to know is the year that the author died and their nationality.
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 24, 2023 at 9:33
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    @OrangeDog No, it's not that simple. The copyright duration of a work depends on the country it was published in, not the country of residence of the author. Project Gutenberg Australia was largely created because there was a reasonable number of English works that were life+70 in the U.S. and U.K., but only life+50 in Australia. (And hence in the public domain in Australia only.) Further, there are a large number of works published in the U.S. that would still be copyright today under a life+70 regime, but were published in a time when copyright needed to be renewed after 28 years.
    – DavidW
    Nov 24, 2023 at 14:39
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    @OrangeDog (con't) These works, like those of H. Beam Piper, are PD today because nobody renewed them at the time, and they fell out of copyright. Subsequent copyright extensions did not always claw back works from the public realm (that was an "innovative" and controversial aspect of the CTEA of 1998). So to properly judge the copyright status of a work requires knowing its country of publication, the governing law at the time and all changes to the law since. And if, at any time since publication, registration was required, that must be tracked down too.
    – DavidW
    Nov 24, 2023 at 14:44
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    Expanding on my earlier comment: "A legal expert would need to know the ins and outs of the Tolkien Estate and who owns what." Why is this not a reason these questions should be considered off-topic? This stack is not about law nor legal expertise. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:56
  • @DavidW it is that simple for Tolkien. You don't need to know anything about the ins and outs of the Estate.
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 24, 2023 at 17:22
  • @OrangeDog You are plainly wrong. The Hobbit was published in 1937 solely by J.R.R. Tolkien (no author credit to Christopher). Any territory on this list with Life+50 copyright length will have that copyright expire this year. Depending on several factors, like what local courts will deem local "publication," whether that requires official importation by the publisher or not, whether or not those countries have signed bilateral or multilateral trade agreements with the U.K. that override their copyright terms...
    – DavidW
    Nov 24, 2023 at 17:58

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