How long does copyright last?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this question. It depends on the work itself as well as in which country it was created. This is because different kinds of works, like photographs or sound recordings or manuscripts, can have different durations for copyright protection and different countries can have different time-periods for protection, for instance in the US and Australia the time period for protection is generally life of the author plus 70 years, but in Canada and New Zealand it is life of the author plus 50 years.

In the United States for example, works created on or after January 1, 1978 are automatically protected from the moment it is created and is ordinarily protected for the author’s life plus another 70 years. In the case of joint-works made by two authors but not made for hire, the duration of copyright is 70 years from the death of the last surviving author. For works made for hire, (and for anonymous works) the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation – whichever is shorter.

For works created before 1 January 1978 and not published or registered, copyright in these works is similar to the above – that is life of the author plus 70 years, or 95/120 years if made for hire.

For works created before 1 January 1978 that were published or registered, the original period for protection was 28 years with an option for renewal. In 1976 the renewal period was extended from 28 years to 47 years, making works eligible for a total term of protection for 75 years. In 1998, a further extension for these works still in copyright at this time was made – adding another 20 years, giving a total term of protection of 95 years.

Sound recordings are present a special set of problems for understanding the terms of their protection. A sound recording is the “fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds.” A sound recording can embody another work (referred to as the “underlying work”), such as a musical composition, a play, or a literary work such as a novel. February 15, 1972, is a key date for sound recordings: sound recordings first “fixed,” or recorded, on that date or thereafter are protected by federal copyright law. U.S. sound recordings fixed prior to that date are protected only by state law.

Why were sound recordings not protected by Federal copyright law until 1972? In 1908, the Supreme Court held that a piano roll was not a “copy” of the musical composition embodied in it because the composition could not be “read” from the roll with the naked eye. Therefore, according to the Court, the defendant did not infringe the musical composition in creating and reproducing the roll. The 1909 Copyright Act, passed the following year, adopted this view. Under that Act, copyright protected original works that were fixed or embodied in copies. “Copy,” however, was interpreted to mean a form that could be seen and read with the naked eye. Audiotape, LPs, and other forms in which sound recordings were commonly embodied could not be read or experienced without the aid of a machine, so they were not deemed “copies,” and therefore sound recordings were not deemed copyrightable under Federal law.

When Congress changed the law to make sound recordings eligible for Federal copyright protection, it provided for Federal protection only prospectively, for sound recordings first fixed, or recorded, on or after February 15, 1972. U.S. sound recordings first fixed prior to February 15, 1972, are not protected by Federal copyright law, but they remain eligible for state law protection. The nature of that protection varies from state to state. Many states protect pre-1972 sound recordings through criminal record piracy statutes, common law protection (against unfair competition, misappropriation, or infringement of common law copyright), or both.

A few years after sound recordings became eligible for Federal protection, Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act to create a unitary Federal copyright system for published and unpublished works, the 1976 Copyright Act preempted state laws that provide rights equivalent to those provided by Federal law for works that come within the subject matter of copyright. Sound recordings were an exception to this scheme. Since pre-1972 sound recordings were not eligible for Federal copyright protection, the 1976 Copyright Act allowed states to continue to protect them until 2047. That date has since been extended to 2067 and upon that date all pre-1972 sound recordings will enter the public domain.

For sound recordings made post-1972, the term of protection is life of the author plus another 70 years. For unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works and works made for hire (corporate authorship), the duration is 120 years from the date of fixation. This means for any recordings made by Siebert post 1972, protection of these would extend until 2068.

In Canada, the term of protection is the life of the author plus 50 years.  For anonymous works, it is 50 years from date or publication or 75 years from date of creation, whichever is shorter.

In Australia, for works created on or after January 1 2005, duration is life of the author plus 70 years. For works still in copyright on January 1 2005, and created or first published before January 1, 1955 duration is the authors death/date first published plus 70 years. There is no retroactive copyright for expired works at January 1 2005. For photographs in which copyright still subsisted on January 1 2005, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. This was not the case prior to 1 January 2005 (if taken before 1 May 1969, 50 years from the end of the year they were taken; on or after 1 May 1969, 50 years from the end of the year of first publication). Copyright in sound recordings made before 1 May 1969 lasted until 50 years from the end of the year the recording was made. Films made before 1 May 1969 were protected as a combination of photographs, dramatic works and sound recordings. For a film or recording made on or after 1 May 1969, copyright lasted until 50 years from the end of the year in which it was first published.

The duration of copyright will depend on when the work was made and where. If you are unsure or need help contact us and we can help.
You can consult these government sites that give basic information about copyright in that country.

Copyright in the USA:

http://www.copyright.gov/

Copyright in Canada:

http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/h_wr00003.html

Copyright in Australia:

http://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/get-the-right-ip/copyright/

Copyright in New Zealand:

http://www.copyright.org.nz/basics.php

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