Copyright and Preservation–How Long Does Protection Last

Commission on Preservation and Access

Copyright and Preservation

B. How Long Does (Did) Protection Last?

The foregoing discussion indicates which works may be protected. Such protection is limited, however.68 When the term of protection expires, the work goes into the public domain and may be copied freely. As a result, it is important to be aware of the duration for which each work is protected.

Under the 1909 Act, copyright protection began when the work was published with notice (or in the case of some unpublished works, such as dramatic works, when it was registered) and ran for a period of 28 years. At the expiration of the first term, the copyright could be renewed for an additional 28 years if the application for renewal was made before the end of the first term. Those works which were not renewed at the expiration of the initial term are now in the public domain.

In anticipation of a new copyright law with a longer term of protection, in the 1960’s Congress began extending protection for those works already in their renewal term. Eventually these extensions totaled 19 years, and subsequent renewal terms were made for 47 years (the original renewal of 28 years + the 19 additional years). This meant that the period of total potential protection was 75 years. For works published prior to 1978 this system was left unchanged by the new Act. Thus, the initial 28 year term of a work published in 1957 would expire at the end of 198569; if renewed during that year, protection would be extended for another 47 years to the end of the calendar year 2032. If not renewed, the work would now be in the public domain.

For works created or published after 1978, the new Act adopted new rules designed to bring the United States into conformity with other countries of the world. Under the new Act, basic protection begins when the work is created and lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years.70 For joint works by two or more authors, protection lasts for 50 years after the death of the last surviving author. Works made for hire71 or anonymous works72 are protected for a period of 75 years from first publication or 100 years from creation, whichever expires first. Similarly, the law creates a presumption as to the author’s death at 75 years after first publication or 100 years after creation, whichever comes first, provided there is nothing in the records of the copyright office indicating that the author is still living or died less than 50 years before.73

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