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 Under the 1909 Act, copyright was secured on the date a work was published or, if unpublished, on the date of registration.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Unpublished Movies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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Types of Copyright Law


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Title 17 of the United States Code contains the country's copyright law. U.S. copyright law defines the types of works that can be copyrighted, rights granted to a copyright owner and duration of that copyright protection. Additionally, the law sets forth the procedure for filing a copyright infringement claim when a copyrighted work is stolen. Lastly, the law explains the circumstances in which a copyrighted work can be used without permission.

Copyrighted Book Laws

The book publishing industry is changing rapidly, but copyright laws continue to protect the rights of authors, whether their material is published on paper, online or as an e-book. Copyright protection gives authors, or the firms with whom they contract to publish their books, the exclusive right to distribute their works or create sequels for a set period of time. This helps to ensure that authors can make a living from their writing.

What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone who uploads images to a website, or who downloads or copies images created by others, should be aware of the importance of copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works from unauthorized reproduction or copying and penalize those who fail to respect others’ copyrights. Chapter 17 of the United States Code contains the Copyright Act and the relevant laws.


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