The number of years that copyright protection lasts for a
work has been increasing steadily over the past 300 years.
From 14 years of protection under the 1710 English Statute
of Anne and a maximum 28-year protection under the U.S. Act
of 1790, the 1909 Copyright Law established for most works
a 28-year initial term of protection with an additional 28
years if the copyright was renewed.
The 1976 Copyright Revision Act increased the term of protection
for most copyrights created after January 1, 1978, to the
life of the author plus 50 years after the author's death.
The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act increased
the 50 year term to 70 years after the author's death. Therefore,
in the case of a work written by 2 or more authors, the term
for most copyrights is 70 years after the death of the last
Although the 1976 act continued the rule that compositions
written prior to January 1, 1978, must still be renewed after
28 years to receive extended protection, a 1992 change in
the law provided for an automatic renewal for works first
copyrighted between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977.
For works written on or after January 1, 1978, the concept
of renewal of copyright no longer applies.
Example. A song is written by 4 writers in 2003. Three
of the writers die in the year 2025, and the fourth writer
dies at the age of 100 in the year 2075. The copyright for
this work (assuming it was a joint work and not a work made
for hire) would last until the year 2145, which is 70 years
after the death of the last remaining author. The publisher
of this work would also have copyright protection until 2145,
as the duration of copyright protection depends on the length
of the author's life and not who the author has assigned or
transferred the copyright to.
The rules affecting the duration of copyright protection
for a work fall into a number of categories depending on when
the work is written and what type of work it is. The rules
in this area can be somewhat complex and technical, but the
following categories of works should provide most of the basics
that every writer and publisher should be aware of:
Works Written Prior to January 1, 1978.
Total copyright protection under the 1909 Copyright Law was
56 years (28 years plus a renewal of another 28 years). In
the early 1960s Congress enacted a series of laws extending
the duration of copyrights in their renewal term that would
have fallen into the public domain in the years 1962–77. In
effect, an additional 19 years of protection was added to
copyrights in their renewal term, giving them a total of 75
years of copyright protection. Works still in their initial
term of copyright (the first 28 years) at the time of the
effective date of the 1976 Copyright Revision Act (January
1, 1978) were given an additional 47 years of protection,
provided they were renewed in the twenty-eighth year of copyright.
The 1998 Act added 20 more years for a total of 95 years of
Works Written on or after January 1, 1978.
The copyright protection for these works lasts for 70 years
after the death of the author. If a work was written by more
than 1 author and the work is a "joint" work, the term of
protection is 70 years after the death of the last remaining
Works Made for Hire. The duration of copyright
protection for works made for hire written on or after January
1, 1978, is 120 years from the writing of the composition
or 95 years from its publication, whichever date is earlier.
Under the 1909 law, works for hire were treated similarly
to other types of musical works (28 years plus a 28-year renewal),
with the exception that only the employer had the right to
apply for renewal.