Generally, copyrights provide a monopoly on a work for the life of the author plus 70 years if the work was published in the U.S. after January 1, 1978. However, a simple question like how long a copyright will last should have a simple answer, but it doesn't. The answer depends on when the work was first published, where it was created, whether it was commissioned, and a few other factors.

Does the Creation Date Impact the Copyright Protection?

Yes. Generally speaking, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years if the work was published in the U.S. after January 1, 1978. If the work had more than one author, the “life of the author” is measured by the death of the last surviving author.

However, copyright protection can range from between 95 from the year of its first publication to 120 years after the year of its creation due to special circumstances, such as:

  • If the work was published anonymously

  • If the creator used a pseudonym

  • If the piece is considered a "work for hire." Work for hire is anything created in the course of employment, like an article for a magazine or a piece that was specifically commissioned.

These works cannot renew their copyright protection. In fact, after 1978, copyright renewal is no longer required.

Are Those the Only Factors That Affect Copyright?

No. There are additional circumstances that could affect the length of protection, so you or your lawyer will need to consult Chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the United States Code).

What About Copyright Protection for Earlier Works?

If the work was published between 1978 and 1923, the work is under copyright for 95 years from the date of publication.

If the work was created, but not published, during this time frame, it reverts back to the life of the author plus 70 years. For these works, each piece gets 25 years of copyright regardless of the life of the author. That is, because of the changing laws, copyrights that fall in this timeframe also retained their copyright protection until December 31, 2002. If the work was published before 2003, then it retains its copyright until December 31, 2047.

These works can also have their copyright protection renewed. Renewals are optional after 28 years, and re-registration does have some legal advantages. Copyrights that were not renewed entered the public domain. To find out more on how to file a renewal application as well as the legal benefit for doing so, see Circular 15, Renewal of Copyright.

What About Copyright Protection for Works Before 1923?

Any creative work published in the U.S. before 1923 is considered to be in the public domain, meaning it is available for anyone’s use.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know About Copyright?

Yes. Whether any specific work is currently under copyright protection is a legal question that needs to be researched directly with the U.S. Copyright Office. After 1989, the law no longer requires the copyright symbol after the name of a work, which can make determining whether there is copyright protection more difficult. Even though it is not required, it may still be a good idea to use the copyright symbol to let others know about the copyright status.

Also, Public Law 102-307 updated the 1976 Copyright Act for automatic renewal of the terms of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically provided, the Copyright Office issues a renewal certificate for the work if a renewal application and fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office. Renewal registration is now optional in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term to the full 95 years. However, if the work is not renewed, it is in the public domain.

You can get more information in the documents Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.