Copyright Expiration Law

by Grygor Scott

Federal laws grant copyright owners a wide range of exclusive rights, including the right to reproduce, distribute and perform their works. Copyright laws also specify the duration of copyrights. Congress has made major changes to copyright laws over the years, so calculating a copyright’s expiration date is complicated in some cases.

Copyright Act of 1976

The Copyright Act of 1976 significantly amended existing copyright law. The act introduced automatic protection for all original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as being written, drawn or saved on a computer. Therefore, copyright protection now begins at the creation of the final work. Under previous law, it began at publication or, for an unpublished work, on the date the work was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The 1976 act also changed the term, or duration, of copyrights.

Works Created in 1978 and Later

The expiration date of an original work of authorship created on or after January 1, 1978 -- the date the 1976 act went into effect -- depends on the nature of the work’s creator. For a work created by a single author, the term of copyright is the author’s life plus 70 years. For a work created by two more authors, the term of copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. For works made for hire and for anonymous or pseudonymous works, the duration is either 95 years from the work’s first publication or 120 years from its creation, whichever is shorter. For all works created in 1978 or later, the terms of copyrights expire on December 31 of the calendar year in which the term ends.

Works Copyrighted Before 1978

For works copyrighted before 1978, the Copyright Act of 1976 did not change the date the copyrights went into force. Under the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1909, the copyright for these works were secured on the date the work was published or registered with the Copyright Office and lasted for a term of 28 years from the date the work was published or copyrighted. A copyright owner could renew the copyright for another 28 years. If a copyright was not renewed, the copyright expired when its first term ended.

Works Copyrighted Between 1950 and 1963

The Copyright Amendments Act of 1992 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 amended the 1909 and 1976 copyright acts. Together, these two acts extended the terms of works published or copyrighted before January 1, 1978. The term of copyright for works in their second 28-year term on that date were automatically extended to a total term of 95 years. These works would have originally been published or copyrighted between January 1, 1950 and December 31, 1963. Renewal registration is not required for these copyrights to receive the extended term.

Works Copyrighted Between 1964 and 1977

For works that were in their first term of copyright on January 1, 1978, the length of their second term of copyright is 67 years rather than 28 years. These works would have been published or copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977. Renewal registration is mandatory for the owners of these copyrights to receive the second term.

Special Cases

Works created but not published or copyrighted when the 1976 act went into effect on January 1, 1978 present a special case. The 1976 act automatically gave copyright protection to these works on January 1, 1978. Most of these works also have the same durations -- either life plus 70 years, 95 years or 120 years -- as works created on or after January 1, 1978.

Effect of Copyright Expiration

When a work’s copyright term expires, the copyright’s grant of property rights to the owner ends immediately. Copyright laws no longer protect the work and it enters the public domain. Anyone can use all or part of a public domain work without the permission of its former copyright holder. Works that have entered the public domain cannot be copyrighted.