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Copyright Duration

Copyright Symbol imageDetermining how long a work remains in copyright is challenging. It depends on format (print vs. non-print), the legal terms in effect at the time of publication, if a copyright notice was included, and if and when the work was published.

Shortcut Tables (to Determine if Protected Works are Still in Copyright)

Works for Hire/Anonymous Works, Works by Corporate Authors

Section 101 of the U.S. Copyright Law provides definitions of what a work for hire is. The University's intellectual property policies clarify ownership of faculty works. In other environments, the simple definition is works prepared by employees within the scope of their employment. These works as well as those by corporate or anonymous authors have longer periods of protection: either 95 years from first publication date or 120 years, whichever expires first.

Copyright Law Changes: Affect on How Long Works are Protected

The number of dates and conditions in the shortcut tables can be puzzling. They reflect how copyright law has continued to change. A brief overview of a few major changes will make the tables easier to understand.

  1. Over time, copyright terms have lengthened (see table below). From 1790 through 1922, the maximum term was 28 years (initial period of 14 years and 14 year renewal).

  2. From 1923 through 1963, the minimum term was 28 and the maximum term 75 years (initial period of 28 years and 47 year renewal).

  3. The 1976 copyright law, which went into effect in 1978, tied protection to an author's lifespan : the life of the author + 50 years (for joint authors, the lifespan of the longest living author).

  4. In 1998, the Copyright Extension Act extended the individual terms of all that prior legislation by 20 years, creating a bit of a puzzle. Basically,

    • since the maximum protection for works published before 1923 was 28 years, works published before 1923 are in the public domain (no longer protected by copyright and able to be used freely without requesting permission).

    • works published between 1923 and 1963, previously protected for 75 years (if they had a copyright notice and were renewed) are now protected for 95 years. This means that a work published in 1923 with a copyright notice that was renewed is now protected through 2018 (95 years) rather than 75 years (1998). A work published in 1923 will not be in the public domain until 2019. Thereafter, an additional publication year will be released annually. This is why it is particularly important to check if works published between 1923 and 1963 had their copyright renewed. If not, they be in the public domain.

    • works published after 1978, once protected for the life of the author + 50 years are now protected for the life of the author + 70 years.

  5. Copyright Notices (before 1977 a notice was required for protection)

    • Works published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice are in the public domain.

    • Before March 1, 1989, (the date the U.S. signed the Berne Convention) a copyright notice was required for copyright protection. Authors were given five years after publication, between 1978 and March 1, 1989, to subsequently register.

  6. Automatic Copyright Renewal (1976 copyright law)

    • Beginning in 1964, copyrights were renewed automatically. This is why all works published between 1964 and 1977 that include copyright notices are protected for a full 95 years, the maximum term before protection became the life of the author + 70 years.

  7. Unpublished Works (1976 copyright law)

    • Before the 1976 law, unpublished works were protected by common law and subject to state, not federal law.

    • Works created before January 1, 1978 (when the 1976 copyright law became effective) were given the fullest protection: life of the author + 70 years or until December, 31, 2047 (whichever is greater). Consequently, the soonest such works would be in the public domain is 2048.

    • If the date of the author's death isn't know, protection lasts for 120 years.

Law/Year

Affects Publication
Dates

1st Term

Renewal

Total

1790

1790-1922

14 years

14 years

28 years

 

1923-1963

28 years

47 years

was 75, but now 95 years (with a copyright notice and if renewed)

 

1964-1977

28 years

67 years

95 years

1976

1978 -

life of author + 50 years

 

superseded by 1998 Act

1998

1978-

life of author + 70 years

   

Works Published in the U.S.
(Download a PDF Version)

Date of Publication Conditions Copyright Term
Before 1923 None In the public domain
1923 through 1977 Published without a copyright notice. In the public domain
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without notice, and without subsequent registration. In the public domain
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without notice, but with subsequent registration. 70 years after the death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.
1923 through 1963 Published with notice but copyright was not renewed. In the public domain
1923 through 1963 Published with notice and the copyright was renewed. 95 years after publication date.
1964 through 1977 Published with notice. 95 years after publication date.
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published with notice. 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.
After 1 march 1989 None 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.

Unpublished Works in the U.S.
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Type of Work Copyright Term What was in the public domain in the U.S. as of January, 2006 2
Unpublished works Life of the author + 70 years. Works from authors who died before 1936
Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works and works made for hire (corporate authorship) 120 years from date of creation. Works created before 1886.
Unpublished works created before 1978 that were published after 1977 but before 2003 Life of the author + 70 years of 31 December 2047, whichever is greater. Nothing.  The soonest the works can enter the public domain is 1 January 2048.
Unpublished works created before 1978 that were published after 31 December 2002 Life of the author + 70 years. Works of authors who died before 1935.
Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known 120 years from date of creation. Works created before 1886.

 Works Published Outside the U.S.
(Download a PDF Version)

Date of Publication Conditions Copyright Term in the U.S.
Before July 1st, 1909 None. In the public domain. 
Works Published Abroad Before 1978 in Compliance with U.S. Formalities
July 1st, 1909 through 1922 Published in compliance with U.S. formalities. In the public domain.
1923 through 1977 Published with notice, and still in copyright in its home country as of January 1st, 1996. 95 years after publication date.3
Works Published Abroad Before 1978 Without Compliance with U.S. Formalities
July 1st, 1909 through 1922 Published in a language other than English and without
subsequent republication with a copyright notice.
In the 9th Judicial Circuit, the same as for an unpublished work; in the rest of the U.S., likely to be in the public domain.
1923 through 1977 In the public domain in its home country as of January 1st, 1996. In the public domain.
1923 through 1977 Published in a language other than English, without
subsequent republication with a copyright notice,
and not in the public domain in its home country as of January 1st, 1996.
In the 9th Judicial Circuit, the same as for an unpublished work; in the rest of the U.S.,
likely to be 95 years after publication date.
1923 through 1977 Published in English, without subsequent republication with a copyright notice, and not in the public domain in its home country as of January 1st, 1996. 95 years after publication date.
Works Published Abroad After January 1st, 1978
After January 1st, 1978 Copyright in the work in its home country has not expired by January 1st, 1996. 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or
120 years from creation.
Special Cases
After July 1st, 1909 Created by a resident of Afghanistan, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Nepal, San Marino, and possibly Yemen, and published in one of these countries. Not protected by U.S. copyright law because they are not party to international copyright agreements.
After July 1st, 1909 Works whose copyright was once owned or administered by the
Alien Property Custodian, and whose copyright, if restored,
would as of January 1st, 1996, be owned by a government.
Not protected by U.S. copyright law.


1 Not all published works are copyrighted. Works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties receive no copyright protection in the U.S. For much of the twentieth century, certain formalities had to be followed to secure copyright protection. For example, some books had to be printed in the United States to receive copyright protection, and failure to deposit copies of works with the Register of Copyright could result in the loss of copyright.

2 A 1961 Copyright study found that fewer than 15% of all registered copyrights were renewed, and for books the figure was even lower - only 7%. A good guide to investi- gating the copyright and renewal status of published work is Samuel Demas and Jennie L. Brogdon's "Determining Copyright Status for Preservation and Access: Defining Reasonable Effort" in the October 1997 issue of Library Resources and Technical Services, volume 41, issue 4.

3 Foreign works published after 1923 are likely to be still under copyright in the U.S. because of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) modifying the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The URAA restored copyright in foreign works that as of January 1st 1996 had fallen into the public domain in the U.S. because of a failure to comply with U.S. formalities. One of the authors of the work had to be a non-U.S. citizen or resident, the work could not have been published in the U.S. within 30 days after its publication abroad, and the work needed to still be in copyright in the country of publication. Such works have a copyright term equivalent to that of an American work that had followed all of the formalities.

The above chart was first published (in slightly different form) in Peter B. Hirtle's "Recent Changes to the Copyright Law: Copyright Term Extension", Archival Outlook, January/ February 1999. The information contained within this version is current as of January 1st, 2006.

The most recent (and complete) version is found at www.copyright.cornell.edu/training/Hirtle_Public_Domain.htm. Use of this work is governed
by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license 2.0. And in addition, permission is granted for non-profit educational use, including but not limited to reserves and coursepacks made by for-profit copyshops. The Creative Commons Attribution Non- Commercial license states that others are free to share (copy, distribute, display, perform) this work as well as to remix (make derivative works) if they do so desire. They may do so under the following conditions - that they attribute the work in the manner specified by the
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