Copyright protection exists to ensure that the creators of original works of authorship, such as movies, photographs, and novels, are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, so to speak. As set forth by U.S. copyright law, creative artists and authors are generally afforded the exclusive right to profit from their work for a certain period of time. The idea is that people will be motivated to create works that benefit society if they know that they, as well as their descendants, will be able to generate income from the creation, performance, and public display of those works in the future. But how long does copyright protection last? Keep reading this blog to find out.
The U.S. Copyright Act and the Length of Copyright Protection
While the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to pass laws that protect copyrights, it is the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 that sets a time limit for federal copyright protection. According to the statute, the creators of original works of authorship can only have this protection for a certain amount of time before the works enter the public domain and can then be used by anyone. Until that happens, however, only the original author is allowed to sell copies of the work or display the work in public for a profit. When a copyright dispute arises, one of the first questions that almost always gets asked is this: is the work still subject to copyright protection, or has the copyright protection expired?
The precise duration of copyright protection depends on the answers to a number of other questions, including the following:
- What type of creative work is it?
- When was the work created?
- Was the work published? If so, when was it first published?
- Were there any copyright renewal procedures for the work that needed to be followed?
- Were there multiple authors?
- Was it a “work made for hire”?
- Do we know the identity of the work’s author, or was the author anonymous?
Copyright Duration for Works Created After 1978
The default rule for any work created after January 1, 1978 is that copyright protection lasts for a period of either 70 years from the date on which the original author died. This is also the length of copyright protection for any work created prior to January 1, 1978, as long as that work was not published or registered until after 1978.
Additionally, the length of copyright can vary according to the answers to the questions listed above.
Type of Creative Work
The term of copyright protection follows the same rules for most types of creative works, including literary works, photographs, and films. However, there are some exceptions. For example, sound recordings were affected by the Music Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2018. The legislation established date ranges (e.g., 1923-1946, 1947-1956, 1957-1972) with different durations for audio recordings and musical compositions.
Identity of Author
Anonymous works (as well as works where the author used a pseudonym) created after 1978 have a copyright duration of either 120 years from the date when the work was created or 95 years from the date when the work was initially published, whichever expires first. However, the default length of 70 years after the author’s death will apply if, at any point, the author’s identity is revealed through an official registration of the work with the U.S. Copyright Office.
When the work had multiple authors, the copyright lasts for the life of the last surviving author plus an additional 70 years after that author’s death.
Works Made for Hire
Works created by an employee during the course of their employment are subject to different copyright rules because it is the employer who is technically considered the legal author of the work for the purposes of federal copyright law. Works for hire have the same copyright duration as works created anonymously: either 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation.
Copyright Duration for Works Created and Published Before 1978
Things get more complicated for works that were created and published before 1978 because of subsequent intellectual property laws that allowed for automatic copyright renewal. Since these creative works already had federal copyright protection prior to 1978, they are generally subject to the U.S. Copyright Act of 1909 when it comes to calculating the length of copyright protection. The initial term of protection was 27 years from the date of first publication, with copyright protection able to be extended with renewals. These renewals became automatic with the passage of the U.S. Copyright Renewal Act of 1992.
Contact the California Copyright Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP
Do you want to know how long the copyright will last on your creative work? Do you have another question about your intellectual property rights? The Los Angeles intellectual property attorneys at Tauler Smith LLP can assist you. You can call us anytime at 310-590-3927, or you can fill out the contact form here.