How Long Does a Movie Copyright Last?

By Christine Varad

A copyright is a legal right granted for a limited time to the creator of an original work held in a fixed form. The creator gains the right to exclude others from copying, performing, selling, displaying or making a derivative version of the protected material. Federal law controls the length of time a copyright will last. The period of copyright for a movie depends on factors such as when the film was created, when it was published, whether there is a single creator or multiple creators, and whether the creators are known or anonymous.

Current Law

A movie with a single, known creator that was created on or after January 1, 1978 would have copyright protection beginning at its creation and lasting for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years after the creator's death. In the case of a joint work, the term of copyright would end 70 years after the death of the last surviving creator.

Pre-1978 Copyrights

Movies created and copyrighted before January 1, 1978 will retain rights under the Copyright Act of 1909 but with some changes afforded by the Copyright Act of 1976. Under the 1909 Act, copyright was secured on the date a work was published or, if unpublished, on the date of registration. Copyright lasted for 28 years and was eligible for copyright renewals. The 1976 Act retained the previous system but allowed for increased renewal terms lasting 47 years. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act increased the renewal terms another 20 years for a total of 67 years. Thus, for works created prior to January 1, 1978, the total number of possible copyright protected years is now 95 years from the original date of copyrighting.

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Unpublished Movies

Movies created but not published or formally registered for copyright before January 1, 1978 will be granted a copyright lasting for the same term as those copyrighted after January 1, 1978, or for the life of the creator plus seventy years after his death, but in no situation will the term of copyright expire any earlier than December 31, 2002.

Other Authorship

An anonymous work, a pseudonymous work or a work made for hire is granted a copyright that lasts for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, and expires on whichever date occurs first.

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A List of Copyright Rules & Procedures

Copyrights protect original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. They prohibit anyone other than the author from copying or performing the work without the author's permission. Violation of a copyright is called infringement. If your copyright has been infringed, you may be entitled to damages. These protections are provided by the U.S. federal government. They are embodied in Title 17 of the U.S. Code. State protections also exist, but these vary from state to state.

Joint Authorship & Copyright

Copyright is the legal protection afforded to creators of original works like writings, paintings, or musical compositions. Copyright arises when a creative idea is fixed in a tangible medium, such as recording a melody or sketching a painting. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office allows copyright holders to sue people who infringe on their copyrights. When two people work together to create a copyrightable work, they share that copyright as joint authors.

Copyright Law for Unpublished Manuscripts & Archival Collections

Libraries keep unpublished manuscripts, letters and other historical documents in archives. Unpublished works in archives are protected by U.S. copyright law, and authors maintain exclusive rights to control the duplication and distribution of their work. Although authors may transfer their copyright ownership to others or give a library ownership of the work itself, even if it is the only existing copy, this does not by itself transfer copyright in the work.

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