Copyright helps the creators of artistic, musical, literary and other intellectual works see the economic rewards of their creations by giving them the exclusive right to display, sell and license those works for a set period of time. Once copyright protection expires, the work enters the public domain and can be used by anyone. Copyright on newer works can't be renewed, but the copyright on some works produced before 1978 may be renewed.
Copyright protection does not extend forever; every copyright is in effect only for a limited time established by federal statute. For works subject to U.S. copyright law that were created, first published or registered on or after January 1, 1978, the copyright expires 70 years after the death of the creator. Works for hire created on or after January 1, 1978 are protected by copyright laws for the shorter of either 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation. The copyright on any of these works created, first published or registered after January 1, 1978 cannot be renewed.
Effect of Expiration
Once copyright has expired, the creative work that was protected by the copyright is considered to be in the public domain. Works for which a copyright was not renewed, or for which the creator intentionally releases to the public all claims to copyright, are also in the public domain. Anyone may use a public domain work, and no one else may remove it from the public domain by claiming a new copyright on it. However, individuals who contribute a new element of original creativity to a public domain work may copyright that particular element, such as a new orchestration of a classical, public domain piece of music.
Copyrights That Are Renewable
The 1909 copyright law, which applied to all works created before January 1, 1978, created a 28-year term of copyright protection and allowed for those copyrights to be renewed. Under the present copyright law, works created between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977, are automatically renewed so that the total duration of copyright protection for these works is 95 years from the original date of copyright. Although the copyright renewal for these works is automatic, registering the renewal with the U.S. Copyright Office conveys distinct advantages, including helping to ensure the world is on notice as to who holds the copyright for the work. A renewal certificate, obtained through registering the renewal, is legal evidence of the copyright's validity. Works copyrighted prior to January 1, 1964 were not automatically renewed. If the copyright was not timely renewed on these works, they passed into the public domain 28 years after the original date of copyright.
Other Renewable Intellectual Property
Patent and trademark represent two additional forms of protection for intellectual property, protecting the economic rights of inventors and businesses. Like copyright, patent protection has time limits set by statute. These limits vary depending on the type of patent but generally last between 14 and 20 years, and very few patents can be extended beyond that initial protection term. Trademarks -- the protection of any "word, name, symbol, device, or any combination" of these, that helps consumers identify and distinguish the products of different companies in the marketplace -- can be registered to receive legal protection that endures for 10 years. Trademark can be perpetually renewed for 10-year increments as long as the trademark holder can demonstrate that he has been continually using the mark in commerce.