How Long Does Copyright Last?

Rights management is vital for photographers and other creatives who want to zealously protect the copyright of the images they capture. How long a person can legally prevent anyone else from profiting from their intellectual property can be confusing, as copyright law has changed many times over the years.

In this article, we will explain how long copyright protection currently lasts in the United States.

The duration of copyright depends on several factors

According to the US Copyright Office, the duration of a copyright depends on several factors, the main one being when a creative work was published.

“The duration of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published and, if so, when it was first published,” the US Copyright Office website states. .

The office goes on to explain this by stating that if the work was published after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright will be limited to the lifetime of the copyright owner, plus 70 years.

In the case of works created anonymously, under a pseudonym or made for rental, the duration of copyright is 95 years from the date of its first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

For content published before 1978, the previous Copyright Act of 1909 protected the work for a period of 28 years, although a further extension of 28 years could be granted. If the extension were not requested, the copyrighted work would permanently fall into the public domain without further copyright protection. There is one exception to this, and that is due to the provisions of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), where certain foreign works that had been lost U.S. copyright protection due to their non-compliance could be restored as of January 1, 1996.

However, the Federal Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal period to 47 years. Congress amended the law in 1992, to add an automatic renewal provision, so that copyright owners cannot lose their protection if they forget to request renewal. There was also a Provisional Copyright Extension Act of 1998, which further pushed copyright protection from 20 years to 67 years. There were at least nine other copyright revisions passed by Congress between 1909 and 2002, to cover other intellectual works for specified periods that would not fall under the provisions discussed here.

Here’s a handy chart that breaks down the copyright term of a work based on when it was first published.

The term of copyright for works first published in the United States. “pma” means “post mortem auctoris”, or “after the death of the author”. Table by Jappalang and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Relevant information for most people reading this article is as follows: living photographers and creatives who create works under their own name these days will be protected by copyright for 70 years after their death.

Mickey Mouse and Ever-Changing Copyright Law

Sound confusing? Well it is. Why would there have been so many copyright revisions in federal law over the past 100 years? The answer is…Mickey Mouse. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a flimsy explanation. This literally means that Mickey Mouse is the reason copyright protection continues to be extended every two decades.

The Walt Disney Company successfully lobbied Congress and the federal copyright office to extend the copyright protection useful date to life of the author plus 120 years in order to prevent Mickey Mouse and other Walt Disney properties from falling into the public domain. Walt Disney, the copyright holder of Mickey Mouse died 55 years ago in 1966.

Artwork by Tony Hirst and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

With a multi-billion dollar trademark (and that’s an entirely different set of requirements), it’s easy to see why the public Walt Disney Company, which has continued in his memory, would want to protect his works for as long as possible. However, all good things must come to an end, and unless Disney can convince Congress to act once again to extend the term of copyright protection, Mickey Mouse will fall into the public domain beginning from January 1, 2024.

But even then, Disney has a protective measure. For starters, only Mickey Mouse as depicted in the movie Steamboat Willie will enter the public domain. As each depiction of Mickey on film has changed, the copyright period for each work is independent. So just because Steamboat Willie isn’t protected doesn’t mean The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t. This version of Mickey will not expire until 2036.

Then there’s the matter of Mickey Mouse as a brand, which has its own terms and time periods, further complicating the matter. As a NOVA South Eastern University professor quoted by The Disney Food Blog, “Trademark law protects words, phrases, and symbols used to identify the source of goods or services. Copyright protects works of artistic expression against copying.

Again, it’s confusing. Other countries also have their own separate copyright provisions, which further complicates matters.

The information in this article is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. To determine where the work falls under these various copyright legalities, it is best to speak to a copyright attorney or visit the US Copyright Office website. There is also a comprehensive circular, known as Circular 15a, which summarizes the provisions of each copyright law, which is available for download and study.


Picture credits: Header illustration created with images from Depositphotos

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