Copyright law is complex. Copyright laws protect works such as books, movies, video games, plays, paintings, recorded musical performances, and software code -- just to name a few. If you've recently secured a copyright or are interested in using a piece of work, the big question that may arise is, "How long does copyright protection last?" The answer is, it depends largely on when the work in question was created.
While many critics argue that copyrights last far too long, keep in mind there are approximately 169 nations that are subject to the Berne Convention, an agreement that guarantees the international protection of copyrighted works. Read along as FindLaw helps you explore the law concerning copyright duration including details about terms of protection for copyrights secured and renewal information.
Works Originally Created before January 1, 1978, but Not Published or Registered by that Date
A work that is created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death. In the case of "a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire," the term lasts for 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 revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
Works Originally Created on or after January 1st, 1978
These works have been automatically brought under the statute and are now given federal copyright protection. The duration of copyright in these works will generally be computed in the same way as for works created on or after January 1, 1978: the life-plus-70 or 95/120-year terms will apply to them as well. The law provides that in no case will the term of copyright for works in this category expire before December 31, 2002, and for works published on or before December 31, 2002, the term of copyright will not expire before December 31, 2047.
Works Originally Created and Published or Registered before January 1, 1978
Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright was secured either on the date a work was published with a copyright notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright endured for a first term of 28 years from the date it was secured. During the last (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 January 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years. A law enacted on October 27, 1998, further extended the renewal term of copyrights still in existence on that date by an additional 20 years, providing for a renewal term of 67 years and a total term of protection of 95 years.
The 1976 Copyright Act was again amended on June 26, 1992, to provide for automatic renewal of the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically provided, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal certificate for these works unless a renewal application and fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office.
In addition, filing for renewal registration is no longer required in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term to the full 95 years. However, some benefits accrue from making a renewal registration during the 28th year of the original term.
Getting Legal Help with Copyright Duration
Whether you are seeking copyright protection for your own work or want to know if you will ever be able to use Mickey Mouse's image, consider speaking to a lawyer. Copyright protection laws can be difficult to understand. You'll want an experienced business and commercial law attorney on your side.