It’s a simple question, one that a lot of people ask. Unfortunately the answer is not quite so simple.
The reason copyright duration can be complex (and confusing) is because different rules apply depending on when the creative work was published (or created) and who the original author is.
Let’s start with the question of when. If the work was published (not created) before 1978, then the copyright term was set by the 1909 Copyright Act. In that Act, you had to register your work with the Copyright Office to have a copyright, and you had to renew your registration to get the maximum length of protection. If you find a memoir your great-grandmother published back in the 1940s, but she never obtained a copyright certificate, then it was never protected by copyright. Even if she did register the memoir, the copyright would have expired if she didn’t renew her copyright within the correct time window. On the other hand, if she did obtain a copyright certificate, and renewed it at the right time, then her copyright would still be valid and in force today.
Thankfully, Congress created an entirely new Copyright Act that took effect in 1978, and they also updated the rules for those pre-1978 works. Under the current Copyright Act, renewals are no longer required, and all works with a valid copyright will continue to be protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
Now let’s move on to the copyrights for works created after January 1, 1978. Under the current Copyright Act, you have protection as soon as your work is completed and “fixed” (i.e. put in a format that others can view – written down, typed up, filmed, recorded, painted, etc.). That protection will last your entire life, plus 70 years. Registration is recommended, but not required unless you want to sue someone. Simple, right?
There is one wrinkle, though. What happens with works where the author is unknown, or the “author” is a corporation that hired someone to create the work under the work for hire doctrine? “Life of the author” doesn’t work so well in those situations, so Congress has a different rule for them. When the author is anonymous, uses a pseudonym (i.e. a pen name), or is a corporation, then the copyright will last 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever ends sooner. Most people don’t sit on a creative work for thirty years before publishing, so in most cases it will be 95 years from the date it was published. It’s a bit more complex, but at least they didn’t bring back the renewal system.
So what’s the final answer on how long a copyright will last? Here’s the breakdown:
- Published before 1978 – 95 years from the date of publication (if the copyright was still valid in 1978)
- Created in/after 1978, if the author is a known person – life of the author + 70 years
- Created in/after 1978, if the author is unknown, pseudonymous, or is a corporation – 95 years from date of publication, or 120 years from creation, whichever ends sooner
Of course, if all of this makes absolutely no sense, or you’re not sure where your copyright falls in the spectrum, you’re welcome to reach out and ask me more at firstname.lastname@example.org.