How Long Are Copyrights Good For?

by T.C. Edere
A copyright term can last long after the music stops.

A copyright term can last long after the music stops.

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A copyright protects its holder’s valuable rights in a piece of intellectual property, such as a book, film or music recording. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to set the “limited” life of a copyright. Lawmakers decide how long copyrights are good for, and the trend has been to make copyright protection terms longer and longer.

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Laws dealing with the duration of copyright are “complex,” says the U.S. Copyright Office. There are rules for works created and registered for copyright before 1978 and different rules for works copyrighted and registered from 1978 to the present. Works copyrighted before 1978 but not registered until after 1978 are treated differently. If that’s not complicated enough, the term of a copyright for flesh-and-blood authors, who die, is different from the copyright term for corporations, which don’t.


The original U.S. copyright law, in 1790, allowed authors to register copyright for 14 years and renew it for 14 more years. In 1831, Congress raised the initial term to 28 years, with a 14-year renewal. In 1909, the renewal term was lengthened to 28 years. Congress then enacted a series of laws extending various copyrights to 1976, when lawmakers overhauled the law again. When the law was revamped in 1976, works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978 were protected for the rest of the author’s life plus 50 years after he died. In 1998, Congress extended that life after death period, for a copyright, to be 70 years.


The effect of all this legislation, says the Copyright Office, is that works published in the United States before Jan. 1, 1923 are in the public domain. Works that were still in copyright in 1978 now have a total protection term of 95 years. Works copyrighted after 1978, depending on the author’s health, could be paying fees to the author’s grateful heirs well into the next century. A song penned (and registered for copyright) by an 18-year-old musician in 1978 who lives to age 100 won’t fall out of copyright until the year 2130, at least. That term could last even longer if Congress again extends copyright protection, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled Congress can do at any time, even retroactively.

Works for Hire

Authors die, corporations don’t, and copyrights aren’t supposed to last forever. Suppose a copyrightable work is made for hire -- that is, created by an employee for his boss. It might be a newspaper story written by a reporter for his paper, or a program created by a software programmer for his company. Then the boss and not the author owns the copyright. If the boss is a corporation, that work for hire carries a copyright of 95 years from date of publication or 120 years from date of creation, whichever expires first. If the corporation goes bankrupt, closes up shop or disappears in a merger, then the copyright is just one more asset to sell, but the copyright term doesn't change. If an author assigns or even sells his copyright to a corporation, the author still remains the author. The corporation gets use of the author’s copyright for a maximum of his life plus 70 years.