Works created under the present system generally are protected for the life of the
author plus seventy years. However, if the work is a "work for hire", an
anonymous work, or a work published under a pseudonym, the copyright term is seventy-five
years from first publication or 100 years from creation, whichever expires first. Because
the laws have changed over the years, works created under different law may have different
Works created on or after January 1, 1978:
The term of a copyright created after January 1, 1978 is the life of the author plus
seventy years. When a work is created by joint authors, the term is determined by adding
seventy years to the date of death of the last surviving author. For example, if the
artist creates a work in August of 1996, and then dies in August of the year 2000, the
copyright expires on December 31, 2050. Why December 31? This is the law. The copyright
always expires on the last day of the fiftieth calendar year after the author's death.
If the artist creates a pseudonymous work, an anonymous work, or a work for hire in
April of 1996, and then dies in 1998 without ever publishing the work, the copyright in
the work expires in 2096, one hundred years from creation. The author's death is
irrelevant in these cases. It is publication that affects the term. For instance, had he
published in 1997, the copyright would expire on December 31, seventy five years after
publication, in 2072.
When one or more of the authors of an anonymous or pseudonymous work identifies himself
before the end of the copyright term, then the copyright in the work endures for his life
of the surviving author whose identify has been disclosed plus seventy years. The author
wishing to identify himself must contact the Copyright Office and register the work, or
file any other appropriate document providing a public record of his identity.
When the term of copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and the prior
owner no longer has any exclusive rights in the work.
Works created but not published before January 1, 1978:
Prior to January 1, 1978, only published works were protected by the copyright law.
During this period, copyright protection was gained by placing the proper copyright notice
on the work. The term of protection was 28 years from the date of first publication. The
law at the time provided a right to renew for an additional 28 years. However, an
unpublished work could claim no federal copyright protection. Nevertheless, it was
protected, if at all, under state law provided it remained unpublished. On January 1,
1978, all copyright laws were consolidated under federal law, and the term of the work is
determined based on its status as of that date.
The term of a work which was created but not published before January 1, 1978 is
treated as if it was created on or after January 1, 1978. However, a minimum period of
protection is provided: the copyright term will not expire prior to December 31, 2002,
regardless of the year in which the author dies or the year in which the work was created.
The copyright law at that time provided for an incentive to publish the work before the
term of copyright expires. If this is done, the term of protection is extended to December
Works created and published prior to January 1, 1978:
When a work was created and published with the proper copyright notice prior to January
1, 1978, the work may receive 75 years of protection from the date of first publication.
However, affirmative action of the part of the copyright owner may be required to obtain
the full term, depending on whether the work was in its first or its renewal term on
January 1, 1978.
If the work was in its first term on January 1, 1978, then the term continues for the
remainder of the first term. If a timely request to extend the term is made prior to the
time that the first term expires, an additional 47 years of protection may be obtained (28
years plus 47 years equals seventy-five years total protection).
For example, in 1968, Warren sold a painting with the proper copyright notice to Jack,
thus fulfilling the requirements of obtaining federal copyright protection for the work.
The work then had copyright protection for a 28 year term, due to expire in 1996. In 1978,
the new copyright law went into force, maintaining the original 28 year copyright term. In
1996, Warren had the option of renewing the copyright for an additional 47 years, until
2043, provided he filed an application for renewal in the Copyright Office on any date in
the year the original term was set to expire.
If the copyrighted work was already in its renewal term as of January 1, 1978, then the
term would have automatically been extended to 47 years (rather than just 28 additional
years), resulting in a total term of seventy-five years from the date of first
For example, if Warren had published his work of art by selling a new painting to Jack
in 1935, the original copyright term was to expire in 1963. Provided that Warren filed an
application for renewal in 1963, the work would be in its renewal term in 1978, thus
automatically receiving an extended renewal term of 47 years of protection. Warren's
copyright in the work would expire on December 31, 2010, 75 years from the first date of
The changes in the copyright law in 1978 did not provide for the renewal of copyrights
which had expired prior to January 1, 1978. If the work had entered the public domain
prior to January 1, 1978, it stayed there and was not revived. Everyone is free to copy
Duration of Moral Rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act
The rights of attribution and integrity are enforceable during the lifetime of the