This Article Originally Published March 2003
by Jeffrey & Todd Brabec
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 surviving author.
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 196277. 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 protection.
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 author.
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.