Copyright Qs & As: Duration of Copyright Protection

4.1 Question: Is there a simple way to determine duration of a copyright work in the U.S.?

Answer: The duration of copyright protection in the U.S. is more complicated than in other countries due in part to the fact that the length of copyright protection in the U.S. has been amended a number of times. Helpful charts to determine whether a work is in the public domain are at: http://www.copyright.cornell.edu/public_domain/, and http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm. (2006-3)

4.2 Question: There is a photograph on a Web site that my organization wants to copy and paste into our Web site. There is no copyright notice on the photograph nor any information relating to copyright protection or the name of the photographer or owner of the photograph. Is the work in the public domain?

Answer: No, assume that all content on the Web is protected by copyright unless there is a statement to the opposite, or you have investigated the copyright status of the work. Even a work that does not contain a copyright symbol or other information relating to the identification of the copyright owner is presumably subject to copyright protection. (2008-1)

4.3 Question: Do all countries have the same copyright duration?

Answer: No. The Berne Convention sets out the minimum duration for copyright protection, which is currently life + 50 — fifty years after the author’s death. So most countries (including Canada) still have a life + 50 duration. However, countries are “free” to provide a longer duration and the U.S. and European Union countries now provide a life + 70 duration. Note that this is the “general rule” of copyright duration and specific works such as government works and employment works may have different durations of protection. (2009-1)

4.4 Question: What does public domain mean?

Answer: Public domain means that a work is not protected by copyright. This may occur in several situations. For example, U.S. government works (those created by the U.S. government and its employees) are in the public domain. Also, works in which copyright duration has expired are in the public domain. (2010-1)

4.5 Question:  John Doe, a staff newspaper photographer, takes a photograph as part of his employment .  John Doe dies in 1955.  Is the newspaper’s copyright in the photograph still valid in 2010, or did it expire in 2005 or 50 years after Doe died?

Answer:  It depends on which country you are in. For example, in Canada, the duration of an employment work is based upon the life of the author, not the employer. In the U.S., the duration of copyright for an employment work is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. (2010-3)

4.6 Question:  Do copyrights have expirations?  My husband thinks they run out in 17 years. I have a copyright from 1981 on some artwork. Is it still valid?

Answer:  Copyright does have a limited duration. For example, copyright expires 70 years after an author’s death in the U.S. The duration may vary for different works and situations and in different countries. Look at the copyright office in your country to determine what applies in your situation.


12 Comments

  1. Lesley says:

    Hi Shelley, re the date, the date is usually the year of publication or if there is more than one date, the second date may be the date of revision of the site. The date has nothing to do with the expiry of copyright or extension of it (fyi, not sure any countries still allow the renewal of copyright.)

  2. Shelley says:

    What if the copyright at the bottom of the page has the date 2005-2009? Does that mean that their copyright has finished or not been renewed and now available for use?
    Also what if I am writing a textbook and would like to include various examples of adverts, is there anywhere I can copy them from the web without copyright issues?

  3. Lesley says:

    Hi Diane, the first part of your question is answered above. The second part relates to the basics of international copyright law — some helpful info is at http://www.copyrightlaws.com/international/11-0-international-copyright-issues/.

  4. Diane says:

    If our organization in Canada posted online John Doe’s photograph, taken and published in 1950 during his employment by a newspaper, we would indicate that it was in the public domain. However, if someone in the USA asked us whether he could legally use or re-post the photograph, must we tell him to contact the newspaper for permission, since under American law it would not be public domain until 2045 (95 years after publication)?

  5. Lesley says:

    Hi Diane, it depends on which country you are in. For example, in Canada, the duration of an employment work is based upon the life of the author, not the employer. In the U.S., the duration of copyright for an employment work is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.

  6. Diane says:

    John Doe takes a photograph as part of his employment by a newspaper so the newspaper holds the copyright. J. Doe dies in 1955 but the newspaper he works for is still publishing in 2010.

    Is the newspaper’s copyright in the photograph still in effect or did it expire 50 years after Doe died? If it is still in effect in 2010, when will it expire?

  7. Lesley says:

    Hi Mira, copyright is automatic in Canada (and the U.S.) upon creation/fixation of the work. You can register a copyright work with CIPO (Canadian Copyright Office) using a pseudonym. How you recognize (or not) this pseudonym is not specified by the copyright law, but is a style matter up to you and your publisher.

  8. Mira says:

    If you use a pen name, how do you go about establishing copyright? I have been looking for examples of copyright pages in books where the author has used a pseudonym.I scanned the cipo guide but could not find the answer. Thanks!

  9. Copyrightlaws.com says:

    Hi Mrms, a print or photograph of a public domain work is not necessarily in public domain itself. The reproduction of the public domain work (assuming it meets copyright criteria) is a new work, subject to its own duration of copyright.

  10. Mrms says:

    Is a print of a painting which is in the public domain also in the public domain or is it considered to be an original work with copyright of its own?

  11. Copyrightlaws.com says:

    Hi Moonbeam, the duration of copyright in the US is now life + 70 but has gone through various durations over the past several decades. As such, you may want to consult the chart referred to in 4.1 above. Also note that many use short quotations from copyright protected materials without obtaining permission.

  12. MoonBeam says:

    Based on the lifetime + 70 years rule, can I assume that quotations from anyone who died before 1939 are now in the public domain and therefore safe to use without obtaining permission, or can the copyright be extended beyond that time by the copyright owner’s estate?

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