Big Book copyright
When did the Big Book's copyright end? Why is it that the Big Book can be reproduced by anyone in The USA, but not in other countries?
There has not been a valid US copyright on the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous
for more than 40 years.
The 1986 General Service Conference Final Report explains the end of the book's US copyright this way:
The copyright on the first edition of the Big Book lapsed in 1967, and the copyright on the new material in the second edition lapsed in 1983-both because of a failure to renew them in a timely fashion. There was a mistaken belief that registering the copyright on the second edition in 1956 served to revive the copyright on the first edition; the misconception continued, with respect to the second edition, when the third edition was copyrighted in 1976. (From page 15)
The laws for copyright in place in The USA at the time the Big Book was written were different from the laws in place in most countries. In 1938 US law stipulated that, in order to receive the longest possible term of protection, a copyright had to be renewed, in writing, after 30 years.
Meanwhile, in most of the world, and under later copyright treaties, all written works received an automatic term of protection equal to the natural life of the author(s) plus 50 years from their death. No paperwork was, or is, required under this system. The US has adopted this system, but earlier law governs books authored in 1938.
AA World Service, which inherited the copyright Bill W. claimed on the book, did not renew the copyright. As a result, there is no dispute that the book has been in the public domain in the US since 1967. Nobody "owns" the Big Book in The USA. Anyone can reproduce it without seeking permission from anyone.
Canadian law gives the same "life +50" term of protection calculated to books "as if" they were written in Canada, regardless of the term of protection given under US law. Under Canadian law, the book automatically received a term of copyright equal to the authors life plus 50 years and, since Bill W. claimed to have written the entire book, that term of copyright will only expire 50 years after his death in 1971 — in the year 2021.
This difference in law has lead many works of US origin to enter the public domain in The US while still being owned by someone in Canada. The Canadian Supreme Court affirmed that law in a test case of a Charlie Chaplin film made during the same time period Alcoholics Anonymous
was published. The film was found to have a copyright in Canada, but not in The USA even though it was made in The USA.
Some have argued that Bill W. was not the true "author" of The Big Book but acted as he once described it as an "umpire" over the joint authorship. No court has upheld that argument; AA World Services Inc. continues to claim ownership of the book in all non-US countries.
The basis for the ownership claim of AAWS is the wording of the Berne Convention on Copyright to which The USA is a party. The convention acts as the current "worldwide" copyright law. Under it, all written works receive automatic "life +50 (or more)" copyright protection without the need to file or renew any copyright paperwork.
Under the Berne convention AAWS claims ownership of The Big Book in all countries *except The USA* where it has acknowledged the book is in the public domain.
AAWS has sued AA members for reproducing The Big Book and giving them away for free. In Mexico, AAWS had books confiscated for copyright violation, and in Germany AAWS sued AA members who published the text in an effort to carry the message.
for more information.
Aside from The USA and Canada where the copyright situation is clear, the copyright status of the Big Book is unresolved — arguable for at least these reasons:
First the book may have been sold without copyright notice in multilith form in The USA. Some argue this invalidated any copyright claim to the book under the US laws in place at the time.
Second is the question of authorship. The book was published anonymously but later Bill filed a claim or copyright as the *sole* author though it is clear he did not, by his own recollection, write all of the book. Bill clearly did not write the Doctor's Opinion, To Employers or the personal stories.
Finally, determining the term of protection in other countries is up for debate. Some would say it should be equal to the protection of the country of origin which would make it public domain worldwide (except for Canada). AAWS argues that under the Berne Convention, the term should be calculated as generously as possible in each country, under the assumption that Bill was the only author. This would bring the term to 2021 or later.
The only way to know for sure what the term of protection on the text would be in other nations would be to have a person or group publish it and have AA World Service sue to protect their claim. Then the publisher would have to have enough money to fight the case in court against AAWS. Given that AAWS has a "prudent reserve" in excess of $8,000,000 to spend on lawyers if they see fit, it is unlikely anyone will challenge their claims with any real success as they would have to outlast any lengthy and expensive legal proceedings AAWS could fund.
So, the book may or may not have a copyright in a given country.
It is settled law in The USA and Canada but apart from those nations it is too expensive to find out. AAWS has made it clear that they intend to hold onto their claims of ownership as long as possible.
In many countries, net income from the sale of the book funds a large part of the activities of the General Service office. In 1986 AAWS came to an understanding that this violated the 7th Tradition of being fully self supporting by voluntary contributions. Following a failed attempt to fix the situation, in 1997 AAWS concluded that there never was a conflict with Tradition. Today most of the operating budget of the General Service Office comes from literature sales rather than voluntary contributions.