Friday, March 13, 2020
Is "War with the Newts" in the Public Domain?
War with the Newts fell into the public domain in most countries on January 1, 2009, 70 years after Karel Čapek's death in 1938. The book had been in the U.S. public domain, but copyright was restored in the United States until January 1, 2032. In other words, you'll need permission currently to sell your screenplay in the U.S.
Why isn't it in the public domain in the U.S.? When the United States passed the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), it restored copyright in foreign works like War with the Newts that, as of 1996, had fallen into the public domain in the U.S because of a failure to comply with U.S. formalities (apparently the U.S. publisher failed to renew War with the Newts). Copyright was restored in works like this, and they were given a copyright term of 95 years from first publication. To qualify for this extended term: (1) the author had to be a non-U.S. citizen, (2) the book could not have been published in the U.S. within 30 days after its publication abroad, and (3) the book needed to still be in copyright in Czechoslavakia as of January 1, 1996. We believe that War with the Newts meets these qualifications and that copyright protection lasts for 95 years from first publication.
What about the translation? The 1937 translation of War with the Newts qualifies for separate copyright protection and would also qualify for a 95-year copyright term. For more information on determining public domain status, check out Steve Fishman's The Public Domain, The: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More.