Coming to Terms

One of the most basic questions that creators ask about copyright is “How long does it last?” Unfortunately, there are a number of correct answers to that question, depending on when the work was created, when it was first published, and whether certain formalities were followed under past versions of the copyright statute.

Let’s start simple.

If the work was published before January 1, 1923

The copyright is expired. End of story.

If the work was created on or after January 1, 1978

The copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author or last surviving author, if there is more than one.

If the work is anonymous, pseudonymous or made for hire (i.e. an entity is the author), then tying the copyright term to the death of the author doesn’t make much sense. Instead, in those cases, the copyright expires the earlier of 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation.

An important caveat is that proper copyright notices were required for publications prior to March 1, 1989, and failure to give the notice may result in the work slipping into the public domain. You should discuss specific circumstances with your legal counsel.

If the work was created before January 1, 1978

This is where things get a bit more complex.

If the work was not only created but also either registered or first published before January 1, 1978, then the copyright expires 95 years after first publication or registration. There are two exceptions:

(1) Works first published before January 1, 1978 without proper notice are in the public domain; and

(2) Works first published or registered before January 1, 1964 without proper renewal are expired.

This leaves us with works neither registered nor first published until on or after January 1, 1978. Such works are treated like works created on or after January 1, 1978, but in no case does the work expire before December 31, 2002. If the work was first published on or before December 31, 2002, then the copyright does not expire before December 31, 2047.

When “creation” or “publication” occurs, whether there are exceptions to notice requirements, and what constitutes proper renewal are factually intensive questions that you should discuss with an attorney. Also, keep in mind that copyright terms run through the end of the calendar year in which they expire. For example, if a copyright expires 70 years after the author dies on May 1, 1990, the copyright expires after December 31, 2060, not on May 2, 2060.

We’d love to hear your feedback and questions, as well as topics you would like to see addressed in future posts. As always, thanks for reading Creatorlaw!