I am often asked the question, how long does copyright last? This comes up especially when the person is considering protecting their legacy through an estate plan. Copyright duration also comes up when someone is considering using another person’s content and wants to know if the content still has copyright protection. The answer is actually a little more complicated than one might think. Let me explain why.
The last time Congress made a major update to the Copyright Act was in 1976. When they enacted the new law (appropriately called the Copyright Act of 1976), they made some significant changes to the rules around copyright duration.
Before the Copyright Act took effect on January 1, 1978, copyright owners had to register their copyright shortly after publication, or they lost the chance to get copyright protection for their work. In addition, they only got copyright protection for 28 years; if they wanted more protection, they had to apply to the Copyright Office for a renewal term of an additional 28 years. This led to many issues for copyright owners, and many of them lost copyright protection because they either were unaware of this requirement or failed to follow all the formalities required for copyright protection. Congress did not remove this requirement with the Copyright Act for pre-1978 works, which led to many more people losing their copyrights and many more complaints being lodged with the Copyright Office. Congress eventually updated the Copyright Act to make the renewal term automatic, and now everyone who followed the rules gets an automatic 95 years of protection for their pre-1978 works. (Confusing? I agree! To make it easier, here’s a chart from Cornell University that will give you an idea of whether a pre-1978 work is still protected: https://guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain)
The rules for works created on or after January 1, 1978 are much easier – the author has a copyright as soon as the work is completed. Registration is no longer required (though registering with the Copyright Office is still an excellent idea), and there is no renewal requirement. Authors get copyright protection for their lifetime plus 70 years. For works created as a work-for-hire, or where the author is anonymous or used a pseudonym, copyright lasts for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 from the date of creation, whichever ends sooner.
With these long copyright terms, the idea is to allow the copyright owner to provide for their children and grandchildren after they’re gone. Of course, that’s only possible if the copyright is making money, and the best way to ensure that happens is to plan for what will happen to your copyright once you’re no longer in charge. I hope this answered the question, how long does copyright last? If you would like my help with that, you are welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.