This Q&A about the duration of copyright protection sets out commonly asked questions and provides clear, brief answers that will be helpful to anyone who creates or uses copyright-protected materials.
As always, please do not rely on our short practical answers as legal advice or opinions. Contact an attorney should you require legal advice or opinion on copyright issues.
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?
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 also in different countries. Look at the copyright office in your country to determine what applies in your situation. The United States Copyright Office offers two circulars dealing with copyright duration:
Is there a general rule for copyright duration in the U.S.?
Under the general rule of duration, the term of copyright is determined by the life of the author, not by the life of the owner of copyright. Copyright endures for 70 years after an author’s death, until the calendar year end. This is the life-plus-seventy rule. If an author died on 1 February 1980, copyright in their work expires on 31 December 2050 and it falls into the public domain on 1 January 2051. This rule applies to a work in some fixed form on or after 1 January 1978.
Is there a simple way to determine duration of a copyright work in the U.S.?
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. You can find a helpful chart to determine whether a work is in the public domain at:
What does public domain mean?
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.
For more information, see What Is the Public Domain?
There’s a photograph on a website that my organization wants to copy and paste onto our own website. There’s 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?
No, assume that all content online is protected by copyright unless there’s a statement to the opposite, or you’ve investigated the copyright status of the work. Even a work that doesn’t contain a copyright symbol or other information relating to the identification of the copyright owner is presumably subject to copyright protection.
Do all countries have the same copyright duration?
No. The Berne Convention sets out the minimum duration for copyright protection, which is currently life-plus-fifty, meaning 50 years after the author’s death. So most countries (including Canada) still have a life-plus-fifty duration. However, countries are free to provide a longer duration. The U.S. and European Union countries now provide a life-plus-seventy 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.
John Doe, a staff newspaper photographer, took a photograph as part of his employment. John Doe died in 1963. Is the newspaper’s copyright in the photograph still valid in 2018, or did it expire in 2013, 50 years after Doe died?
It depends on which country you’re 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.
How would I determine copyright duration for a work that was authored by two people?
Such a work is called a “joint work.” Where two or more authors prepared a work, the duration of protection is 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. For example, if two writers partner on a screenplay and one predeceases the other, copyright in the screenplay lasts 70 years after the surviving author’s death (until 31 December of that year).
Do moral rights have the same duration as the economic rights of copyright?
This varies by country. In the U.S., inder the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), artists who create works of visual art such as paintings, drawings and photographs in a single copy or limited editions of 200 or fewer signed and numbered copies have the right of attribution (one of several moral rights). The duration of protection of this right is the life of the author, whereas economic rights endure for 70 years after the death of the author.
In some countries, moral rights have the same duration as copyright (e.g., Canada) and in others, such as France, moral rights last in perpetuity.
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