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How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Copyright grants legal protection to artists who create original works of authorship. Copyright protection grants creators exclusive rights to distribute, reproduce, and use their work. These exclusive rights granted to copyright holders are essential in copyright infringement cases. The types of works that copyrights protect include:

  • Artistic works
  • Literary works
  • Sound recordings
  • Dramatic works
  • Architectural works
  • Musical works
  • Computer programs
  • Graphic works
  • Motion pictures
  • Choreographic works

As a small business owner or artist, you may wonder how long copyright protection lasts. The answer is that it depends on when the artist created the work.

Critics say copyrights last too long. But 169 nations abide by the Berne Convention, which protects copyrighted works worldwide. This article will explore the law on copyright duration, including details about terms of protection for secured copyrights and renewal information.

Works Created Before Jan. 1, 1978, but Not Published or Registered by That Date

A work an artist created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after Jan. 1, 1978, has protection from the moment of its creation. Its term endures for the life of the author plus 70 years after the author's death. Copyright law specifies that in no case would the copyright of a work in this category expire before Dec. 31, 2022.

In the case of "a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire," the term lasts 70 years after the last surviving author's death.

For works made for hire and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author's identity is in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Works Created on or after Jan. 1, 1978

These works have been automatically brought under the federal copyright statute and have federal copyright protection. For works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978, the duration of the copyright generally follows the same calculation: 70 years added to the life of the author.

Works created as works for hire still have a copyright duration of 95 years from the publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

Works published on or before Dec. 31, 2002, won't lose copyright protection before Dec. 31, 2047.

Works Created, Published, or Registered before Jan. 1, 1978

Before 1978, copyright law allowed works to be secured by publishing with a copyright notice or by registering in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright lasted for a first term of 28 years from the date it became secured. During the 28th year of the first term, the copyright was eligible for renewal.

The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights that existed on Jan. 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA). This made these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years. A law enacted on Oct. 27, 1998, extended the renewal term of copyrights still in existence by an extra 20 years, providing a renewal term of 67 years. So, the total time of protection was 95 years.

The 1976 Copyright Act was again amended on June 26, 1992, to allow automatic renewal of the term of copyrights secured between Jan. 1, 1964, and Dec. 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically allowed, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal certificate for these works unless the copyright owner files a renewal application and pays a fee to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Also, filing for renewal registration is no longer required to extend the original 28-year copyright term to 95 years. But, some benefits accrue from making a renewal registration during the 28th year of the original term.

Need Legal Advice about Copyright Law?

If you need help with copyright registration for your work or want to know if you can ever use Mickey Mouse's image, consider speaking to a lawyer. Copyright protection laws can be challenging to understand. You'll want an experienced intellectual property attorney on your side.

Visit FindLaw's Intellectual Property section to learn more about the other forms of intellectual property rights: trade secrets, trademarks, and patents.

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