Duration of Copyright

Posted on 12/21/1999 by Nancy e. Wolff | Printable Version | Comments (0)



December 21, 1999

by: Nancy E. Wolff

    The following article provides a concise explanation of copyright rules in the United States

    relative to the duration of a copyright.Ms. Wolff is Counsel for the Picture Agency Council

    of America . This article was first

    published in the PACA newsletter and is provided compliments of PACA.

Since the duration of copyright protection was extended on October 1998, I have received

many questions regarding the duration of copyright, under both the pre-1978 and post 1978

Revised Copyright Act. When images fall into the public domain is also a recurring issue.


If an image was published before 1924, it is no longer protected by US copyright?


Works published BEFORE January 1, 1923, have fallen into the public domain, but works

published after that date could still be protected by copyright if the copyright was

renewed by registration or afforded automatic renewal by law.

Under the 1909 Copyright Act, once a work was PUBLISHED, it was required to be

registered. The copyright was valid for 28 years. In the 28th year, a renewal of

copyright registration was required to be filed to extend the copyright for another 28

years. However, the copyright act has been revised many times to extend copyright



If a work was published without proper copyright notice prior to March 1989, the work

fell into the public domain and could not be restored (unless it was a foreign work

governed by GATT). The issue of what is "published" has been interpreted by the various

courts and will be the subject of a follow up copyright update. The Copyright Office

does not interpret the copyright Act.

The duration of copyright in various years becomes complicated. The

Copyright Revision of 1976, effective 1978, changed the duration of

copyright from a 28 year renewal scheme to life of the copyright holder plus 50 years,

unless it was a work for hire, in which case the duration of copyright was for 75 years.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended US copyright protection to

life of the author plus 70 years and it affects works retroactively. Works for hire are

now protected for 95 years.

In addition, several amendments to the copyright act over the years have extended the

duration of copyrights for works created under the 1909 Act, making our system of

copyright extremely complex.

The following is a summary of the duration of copyright:

    1. A work published since January 1, 1923 and before 1964, and originally

    copyrighted within the past 75 years, may still be protected by copyright if a valid

    renewal registration was made during the 28th year of the first term of copyright. If

    renewed, protection is now for the full 95 years. Example, A work published on January

    2, 1923 and renewed between January 2, 1950 and January 2, 1951 will not fall into the

    public domain until the end of 2018.

    2. Copyrights originally secured between 1950 and December 31, 1963, still require

    renewal under strict time limits. If renewal was made at the proper time, the renewal was

    for 67 years. If renewal was not made, the works fell into the public domain at the end

    of the first term (28 years).

    3. Copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, have an

    optional renewal, which automatically vests on December 31st of the 28th year. Certain

    benefits accrue with renewal but are not required. It is still a two term copyright but

    the second term is 67 years creating a 95 year copyright. Works created on January 1,

    1964 will fall into the public domain at the end of 2059.

    4. Copyrights in their second term on January 1, 1978, have been automatically

    extended to a maximum of 95 years without he need for further renewal.

    5. Works created since 1978 are now protected for the life of the author plus 70

    years, and in the case of work for hire, 95 years.

    6. Works in existence but UNPUBLISHED AND UNREGISTERED on January 1, 1978, were

    automatically given federal copyright protection. All works are guaranteed at least 25

    years of protection, or until December 31, 2002, and if published before that date, the

    term will extend another 45 years or through the end of 2047.

    This means that works of art that have never been published (i.e., only exhibited in a

    gallery but never reproduced), even if created in a year that if published would place it

    in the public domain, are still protected by federal copyright protection. All terms of

    copyright now run through the end of the calendar year in which they would expire.


How do you know if a copyright has been renewed?


Renewal are filed with the Copyright Office. Information on how to search the copyright

office records are located at the Copyright Office website www.loc.gov/copyright/

Circular 22 "How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a work.


If prior to 1978, the creator of the image was not necessarily the

copyright holder, how do you find out who is, and if it's still protected?


Again you can request that the Copyright Office provide you with the registration

certificate or the renewal certificate. If the registration listed the creator's name as

an author, you would be able to find the name of the creator. The renewal may or may not

list the current copyright owner if the original creator has since died.

If your heads are all spinning, do not despair, the Copyright office has published an in

depth review of the duration of copyright. See Copyright Office Circulars 15, 15 (a) and


    Ms. Wolff can be contacted at The Law Offices of Nancy E. Wolff, 147 W. 80th Street, New

    York, NY 10024, telephone: 212-787-1640, email: newolff@aol.com. She is also Of Counsel

    to the Weinberg Legal Group, a new media, intellectual property firm in Phoenix, Arizona.

Copyright © 1999 Nancy e. Wolff. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


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