Copyrights don't last forever. Eventually, copyrights expire and the works enter the public domain. Figuring out when copyrights end (or ended) can seem complicated, but there are some basic rules you can follow.
Here are two rules of thumb for determining how long a copyright lasts:
In other words, the copyright for most works will expire and the work will enter the public domain either 95 years after publication or 70 years after the death of the author.
But there are special rules for certain types of works, including:
Works published prior to January 1, 1978 go into the public domain 95 years after publication. But you don't need the exact publication date to know when the copyrights on these works end.
Beginning in 2019, on January 1st of each year, the copyrights on all works published in the year 95 years earlier expire, and those works go into the public domain. In other words:
And so on, until January 1, 2073, when all works published in 1977 go into the public domain.
Again, works created after 1977 are not on a 95-year schedule, but instead enjoy copyright protection for the life of the author plus 70 years.
If a work was published less than 95 years ago but before 1964, the copyright needed to be renewed by the copyright owner after the first 28 years. If the copyright wasn't renewed, it expired after the initial 28-year term. If the copyright was renewed, it will expire 95 years after publication.
In 1992, Congress made renewal automatic, meaning that copyrights in works published between 1964 and 1977 were automatically renewed.
How can you tell if a work published less than 95 years ago but before 1964 was renewed? Sometimes a republication of a work will contain a renewal notice along with the with the copyright notice. For example, a paperback edition of Shelby Foote's 1952 novel Shiloh contained the following notice:
Copyright © 1952 by Shelby Foote
Copyright renewed 1980 by Shelby Foote
But most pre-1964 publications don't contain a renewal notice, which means you need some other way of determining whether the copyright was renewed and the copyright is still in effect.
The Copyright Office maintains records of registrations and renewals. You can search the records yourself, o you can pay a service to do it for you.
The Copyright Office will do registration and renewal searches at a cost of $200 per hour, with a minimum of two hours (meaning a minimum cost of $400). They also do expedited searches at a minimum of $1,000.
Private search services such as Durationator offer less expensive renewal searches.
Before February 15, 1972, federal copyright law didn't protect sound recordings. In 1971, Congress amended the copyright law to provide federal copyright protection for sound recordings first published with a statutory copyright notice on or after February 15, 1972.
In October 2018, Congress passed the Music Modernization Act. This Act extended copyright protection to pre-1972 recordings as follows:
For more information on the Music Modernization Act, see the U.S. Copyright Office's site.
The Copyright Act of 1976 radically changed the way works are copyrighted and how the duration of copyright is determined. Beginning January 1, 1978, a work is copyrighted when it is created, not when it's published. For works created on or after January 1, 1978, including published and unpublished works, the term of copyright is one of the following:
Based on the rules explained above, you can determine the copyright status of many works based on the year of publication or creation.
For an in-depth explanation of copyright duration and how to take advantage of public domain works, read The Public Domain: Find and Use Free Content for Your Website, Book, App, Music, Video, Art, and More.