How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Whether you are the copyright owner or someone hoping to draw on a work of art or writing, it's important to understand the laws governing copyright length.

Whether you are the copyright owner or someone hoping to draw on a work of art or writing, it's important to understand the laws governing copyright length.

One complicating factor is that the time period of copyright protection has changed over the years. As Congress has enacted, revised, and updated U.S. copyright laws, creative works have had their "protected period" altered.

The following time periods are important to consider when determining whether a particular work is still legally protected:

1. Works published from 1909 through 1921.

The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication. If the copyright was renewed during the 28th year, the copyright was extended for an additional 28-year period.

2. Works published from 1922 through 1963.

The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication. If the copyright was renewed during the 28th year, the copyright was extended for an additional 67-year period.

3. Works published from 1964 through 1978.

The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication, with an automatic renewal of an additional 67 years.

4. Works created on or after January 1, 1978.

The following rules apply to published and unpublished works:

  • For one author, the work is copyright-protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • For joint authors, the work is protected for the life of the surviving author plus 70 years.
  • For works made for hire, the work is protected for 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is less.
  • For anonymous and pseudonymous works, the work is protected for 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is less. (However, if the author's name is disclosed to the U.S. Copyright Office, the work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.)
As you can see, the publication date is critical when determining copyright protection. The above cheat sheet provides you with a solid guide for determining whether a particular work is still protected. If you're interested in using someone's copyrighted work, also be sure to research fair use rules.

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