Copyright law grants authors exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works of their original creations, or license others to do so. These rights are exclusive for a limited term of years, after which the work falls into the public domain and is available for anyone to use without restriction. Amendments and revisions to copyright duration law complicate the process of calculating when a copyright expires. A copyright expires on Dec. 31 of the last year of its term.
Authorship of Work
Under the 1976 Copyright Act, authorship determines the length of the copyright term. For works created on Jan. 1, 1978 or after, the general rule states that copyright protection endures for the life of the author plus 70 years. If there is more than one author, copyright protection extends 70 years after the life of the last surviving author. If the work is a work-for-hire, anonymous or pseudonymous, it is entitled to copyright protection for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.
Notice of Copyright
Works published before 1978 were required by law to include a notice of copyright in order to get copyright protection. The notice names the author and the year copyright protection began. Any work that was first published before 1978 that does not have a copyright notice is in the public domain and not protected by copyright law. The absence of a notice on works published after March 1, 1989 does not necessarily mean the work is in the public domain, because notice is no longer required after that date.
Date of Publication
Works published before Jan. 1, 1978 were entitled to copyright protection for an initial term of 28 years from the date of first publication. In the 28th and final year of that initial term, authors could apply for an additional 67-year renewal term. If the author did not file for renewal, copyright expired on Dec. 31 of the 28th year, and cannot be recovered. Changes to the law granted automatic renewal for works published between 1964 and 1977. After Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection begins from the date the work is fixed in some tangible form, like being written down.
Date of Creation
If a work was created before Jan. 1, 1978 and never published, that work is now in the public domain. These works had varying copyright terms, but under the Copyright Act, all of them expired by Dec. 31, 2002. Copyright terms also vary for works created prior to Jan. 1, 1978, but published at some point after that date. These works have a term of the life of the author plus 70 years or until Dec. 31, 2047, whichever is longer.
Copyright Office Records
For hard-to-find copyright information, you may search the records of the U.S. Copyright Office for free, or you may request an official search by Copyright Office staff. The Copyright Office charges a substantial fee for official searches and requires as much information as possible, including the title of the work, name of the author or publisher, type of work and approximate year it was published or registered. Copyright Office staff will also search for other ownership documents, including transfers of ownership. A certified search report is also available for an additional fee, and can be used as evidence in a copyright infringement lawsuit.