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©2018, Melissa C. Marsh.
Written: 3/1/2001  
By: Melissa C. Marsh

Basic Copyright Law

Determining the copyright term for a work is not hard if you know a few things about when, by whom, and under what circumstances the work was created.

Copyright Works Created Before 1978

If a published work was created by an individual between 1923 and 1963, the work will remain copyright protected for 95 years from the date of publication so long as the copyright owner filed a timely copyright renewal. If, however, the work was created between 1964 and 1977, regardless of whether a renewal was filed, the work will remain copyright protected for 95 years from the date of its first publication. Now he is a catch-if a work was created before 1978 but remained unpublished, then the work will be copyright protected at least until January 1, 2003, and possibly longer.

What About Works Created After 1978?

Under the current law, the copyright term for works depends on the author and when the work was created. For works created after January 1, 1978, the copyright term is the life of the author plus 70 years. However, if the work was a "work made for hire" the copyright term for is 95 years from the date of first "publication" (distribution of copies to the general public) or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. Works made for hire are works created by employees for employers and certain types of specially commissioned works.

Why Is It Important To Know The Copyright Status Of A Work?

There are two primary reasons why someone would want to know the copyright status of a work. They are:

  • to determine whether the copyright in the work has expired, thereby putting the work into the public domain, which means it may be copied and used without permission from anyone; and

  • to contact the owner of a protected copyright to ask permission to use the work.

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