I recently did a Q&A session with the delightful Fremont Area Writers Club, which had many thoughtful and interesting literary law questions. But, unfortunately, there was one question that we ran out of time for: How long does copyright last? It’s a great question and one I’m sure many people are wondering, so I thought I’d answer it here on my blog.
The answer is more complicated than most people think because there’s a different set of rules for works published before 1978 and works created on or after 1978. Let me explain.
On January 1, 1978, the (current) 1976 Copyright Act took effect. According to this Act, all works eligible for protection have copyright as soon as the work is completed. So, as soon as your manuscript is finished, your painting is dry, or your movie is ready for viewing, you have a copyright. Registering with the Copyright Office is not required (though it is a good idea, for all the reasons I stated in my article on registration). The copyright for all works created on or after January 1, 1978, will last for the author’s life, plus seventy years. If the author is anonymous, pseudonymous, or created the work as a work-for-hire, then the duration is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever ends sooner.
However, all works that were published before 1978 are subject to the 1906 Copyright Act. According to the 1906 Act, you had to register your work with the Copyright Office shortly after publication or lose your copyright completely. In addition, you had to file a renewal with the Office after a certain number of years, or your copyright expired early. Unfortunately, the 1906 Copyright Act led to many people losing their copyrights through ignorance or technicalities, so Congress modified the rules so that all active copyrights from this period of time get a maximum protection of 95 years, without having to renew. (Tip: this means that, as of 2021, everything published in 1925 or earlier is in the public domain – if it had a copyright, that protection has expired and people are free to use the material as they please.)
So there you have it. Copyrights for works that were created on or after January 1, 1978 last the life of the author plus seventy years. And the protection for works published between 1926 and 1978 lasts 95 years. There are exceptions, of course, so if you’re trying to figure out the duration of your copyright, or you want to know if another person’s work is protected, you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.