This article is from the Copyright Law FAQ, by Terry Carroll with numerous contributions by others.
The law of copyright duration has undergone many twists and turns. There
have been several major changes in copyright duration law that contribute
to this complication:
- the number of years used in calculating durations has changed,
from either 28 or 56 to either 50, 75 or 100, depending on the
type of work.
- the basis for determining the endpoint of a copyright has
changed; it used to be measured based on when the work was
published, now it's based on when the work's author dies, or
sometimes on when the work was created and/or when it was
- There used to be multiple copyright terms, and if the copyright
was not renewed at the end of the first term, it lapsed.
Today, except as a minor hangover from the past, there is a
single copyright term; renewal is not required.
- Not all the provisions changed at the same time. For one thing,
although the Copyright Act of 1976 did not go into effect until 1978,
well before the draft of the new law was complete, it was likely that
the new statute would extend duration of copyright. Congress
apparently wanted to minimize the impact on authors who would
otherwise lose the benefit of the extended duration, and through a
series of several special purpose laws (Public Laws 87-668, 89-142,
90-141, 90-416, 91-147, 91-555, 92-170, 92-566 and 93-573, and section
304(b) of the 1976 Copyright Act), delayed the expiration of
copyrights that would otherwise have occurred in the 1962 - 1978
interim. The net cumulative effect is as if the duration provisions
had begun to take effect in 1962, 16 years earlier than the rest of
the Act. For another thing, even when the concept of multiple
"copyright terms" was discarded, for a long time, works that were
still in their first term of copyright still needed to be renewed to
avoid going into public domain. This requirement remained in place
until it was finally removed in 1992 (by P.L. 102-307, 106 Stat. 264).
So while the law at anyone time has always been pretty simple, the
cumulative effect of the changes have made the deceptively simple
question "how long does a copyright last?" quite complicated to answer.
The following discussion is based on a current year of 1994. I've tried
to indicate the basis for calculations here, so you can see which need to
be recalculated year by year, and which are okay as is. Regardless of
the scheme used to compute duration, under 17 U.S.C. 305, copyrights
always expire on December 31 of the expiration year, so at the time of
this writing (January 1993), December 31, 1993 is the most recent date on
which any copyright has expired.
With these concerns in mind, here's a short analysis of copyright
Generally, for works created in 1978 or later, a copyright lasts for
fifty years beyond the life of the work's author, after which it lapses
into public domain. 17 U.S.C. 302(a). If the work is prepared by two or
more authors (a "joint work"), its copyright lasts for fifty years after
the last surviving author dies. 17 U.S.C. 302(b). For anonymous and
pseudonymous works, and for works made for hire, copyright exists for 100
years from the date of creation, or 75 years from the date of first
publication, whichever comes first. 17 U.S.C. 302(c). No renewal is
necessary or permitted. (The year 1978 in this paragraph is because
January 1, 1978 is the date on which the Copyright Act of 1976 took
For works to which the attribution right and integrity right apply (see
section 2.1), these rights endure only for the lifetime of the author.
17 U.S.C. 106A(d).
For works published in the years 1964 through 1977, copyright lasts for
75 years from date of publication. 17 U.S.C. 304(a). In the past,
copyright lasted only for 28 years, unless a renewal was filed with the
Copyright Office. Such a renewal obtained an additional 47 years of
protection. Renewal was made optional in June 1992 by P.L. 102-307, 106
Stat. 264. (The year 1964 comes from the fact that renewal was made
optional in 1992, and 1992 minus 28 (the length of the first copyright
period) equals 1964.)
For works published in the years 1904 through 1963, the copyright lasted
for 28 years from date of publication; if the copyright was not renewed,
it lapsed, and the work went into the public domain. Another 28 years of
protection could be obtained by filing a renewal, for a total term of 56
years (1906 comes from the fact that the U.S. effectively switched to a
47-year second term in 1962, and 1962 minus 56 (the old maximum duration
of two 28-year terms) equals 1906). If the copyright was not renewed
after its initial 28-year term, the work lapsed into public domain.
Generally, all copyrights secured in 1918 or earlier lapsed at the latest
in 1993 and are now in public domain (1993 (last year) minus 75 equals
1918). Copyrights secured in the period 1919 through 1949 continue to
exist only if they were renewed, and expire in the period 1994 through
Finally, just to complicate things: if the work was created but not
published prior to 1978, its copyright duration is calculated as if it
had been created on January 1, 1978, and lasts as long as that
calculation specifies, or through 2002, whichever is later. If the work
is published in 2002 or earlier, then the copyright lasts as long as that
calculation specifies, or through 2027, whichever is later 17 U.S.C.
Whew! And to think I went into copyright law instead of tax to avoid the