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How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

by | Sep 5, 2019 | Copyrights, Intellectual Property

Copyright  registrations provide powerful legal protection. However, a registration does not last forever. 

The duration of a copyright registration depends on a number of factors. If you have questions about a specific work, the best course of action is to consult with an intellectual property attorney. 

Unpublished vs. Published

The first question an intellectual property attorney will ask is whether the work is published or unpublished. 

In an era rampant with personal blogging and self-publishing, this is not as easy to answer as it once was. When an author or creator has made a work available to the public without restriction, that work is considered published.

If a work is unpublished, it is automatically protected in perpetuity… as long as it remains unpublished. 

However, should the owner of the unpublished material choose to officially register the work through the U.S. Copyright Office, it is no longer considered unpublished. Instead, it will be treated as a published work from then on. In other words, it is no longer protected forever.

The Rules of Thumb

For those works that are published at some point, there are five primary rules of thumb in order to understand how long copyright protection may last. 

The “Life Plus Fifty” Rule

The Berne Convention, a global agreement about copyright law accepted first in 1886, established a minimum duration for copyright protection for original literary, dramatic, musical, or other artistic work over the life of an author plus 50 years posthumous.

The “Life Plus Seventy” Rule

For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright lasts for the life of the original author plus 70 years in most countries. 

However, there are differences in some countries. So, a work may be copyright protected in some countries but have entered the public domain in others. 

Commissioned Works

Material developed and then published under any name other than the original author is treated differently. This includes work published anonymously, under a pseudonym, or during the course of employment or commission. 

In these cases, copyright protection can be extended by between 25 and 50 years depending on the publication date.  

Shift to Public Domain

In the United States, once the applied rule of copyright has expired, a work is no longer protected. Instead, it enters the public domain. 

Here is a breakdown of that shift away from protection based on publish date: 

  • Prior to 1924 – not protected, automatically public domain
  • 1924 to 1977 – protection will last 95 years from publication date
  • 1978 and beyond – life plus 70 years

Unsure? Reach Out to an Intellectual Property Lawyer for Help

The US Copyright Office has a great website at www.copyright.gov that provides plenty of information on this topic. You can always consult with an intellectual property lawyer, especially if the issues deal with ownership of the copyright, infringement of the copyright, or obtaining a copyright registration.


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