Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
RSS feed

How long does copyright last?

April 24, 2011

Tags: copyright, public domain. copyright search

Someone asked, via the Association of Personal Historians listserv, if she could reprint a biography of her long-dead relative first published (probably self-published) in 1960. Among other things, the underlying question is, How long does copyright protection last? One person suggested "life plus fifty years," which used to be true but no longer is. Here are some answers, from the U.S. Copyright Office:

How long does a copyright last?
"The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics."
And works created on or after January 1, 1978, are not subject to renewal.

More useful information for such a search:
Lolly Gasaway's table on When U.S. works pass into the public domain

What happened to the "life plus 50 term":
Senator Orrin Hatch’s Introduction of The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1997. Copyright on the Disney movies was going to expire and the Disney Studios wanted longer protection. Copyright, developed to protect authors and other "creators," was now also to serve the "copyright industries," which contribute so much to GDP.

As for the biography published in 1960, according to Lolly Gasaway's chart, for a 1960 publication, copyright was not automatically renewed after 28 years the way it would be later. The Copyright Office would have a record both of who registered copyright, if anyone did (and if the book was self-published, that was less likely, because not everyone realizes the importance of copyright registration), and who, if anyone, renewed copyright. (And it MIGHT not have been the original copyright registrant.)
See How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed? (the Online Books Page, edited by John Mark Ockerbloom)

The U.S. copyright office offers a search service to investigate whether a work is under copyright protection. Go here for a search request estimate (currently $165 per hour or fraction thereof, 2-hour minimum).