When Does Copyright Expire and the Work “Enter the Public Domain”?
The existence and duration of copyright protection depends on (1) when the work was “created” (that is, “fixed in tangible medium of expression”), and with regard only to pre-1978 works, (2) whether and when it was “published” and (3) whether that publication included notice of copyright. (Work published before 1978 outside of the United States may be protected notwithstanding the omission of notice.)
The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which went into effect in October 1998, extends extant copyrights by 20 years, subject to a new exception which, under limited circumstances, permits educational copying within the final 20 years. This outline includes the extended terms.
- Works created on or after 1/1/78
- by an individual author or authors, retain copyright protection for 70 years after the last author dies regardless of whether the author(s) published the work or provided notice of copyright
- by an anonymous or pseudonymous author or as “work for hire,” retain copyright protection for the lesser of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation regardless of whether the author(s) published the work or provided notice of copyright
- Works created before 1/1/78
- and published before 1923, no longer have copyright protection. (The 1998 Act does not revive the copyright of works already in the public domain.)
- and published after 1922 but before 1964 are copyrighted for 95 years if they were published with a copyright notice and copyright was renewed (If such copyright was not renewed, it expired after 28 years, but renewal should be assumed unless the U. S. Copyright Office confirms its absence.)
- and published after 1963 but before 1978 are copyrighted for 95 years if they were published with a copyright notice
- and published after 1977 but before 2003 became copyright protected on January 1, 1978 and will remain protected for 70 years after the last author dies or through 2047, whichever is longer
- and never published became copyright protected on January 1, 1978 and will remain protected for 70 years after the last author dies or through 2002, whichever is longer
Limited exception for libraries and archives only:
During the last 20 years of a copyright term, a library or archive may copy, distribute, display or perform a work for purposes of preservation, scholarship or research, but only if it has determined, after reasonable investigation, that the following test is NOT met.
The exception does not apply if (a) the work is subject to normal commercial exploitation, (b) a copy is obtainable at a reasonable price, or (c) the copyright owner provides notice of either (a) or (b) in a manner to be determined by the Register of Copyrights.