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How Long Does a Copyright Last?

You’ve crafted a masterpiece, and it’s protected by copyright. But for how long? 

The Basics of Copyright Duration:

For Individual Creators: Works created by a single individual are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. This means that once the creator passes away, their work remains protected for another 70 years.

For Multiple Creators: If a work has more than one author, the copyright lasts for the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years.

For Anonymous Works, Pseudonymous Works, and Works Made for Hire: These works are protected for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Special Cases:

Works First Published or Registered Before 1978 in the U.S.: These have a different set of rules and can be tricky to apply since the Copyright Act changed significantly between 1909 and 1978. First, all works published before January 1, 1928 are in the public domain since their copyrights have expired. But for those published with notice in the U.S. from 1928 through 1977 and were then renewed, there is an initial 28-year copyright term and a possible 67-year renewal term, totaling 95 years after the publication date. However, most works during this time were not renewed (less than 15%), so many are probably in the public domain.

Works Created But Not Published or Registered in the U.S. Before 1978: All works in this category generally have the same duration for those created after January 1, 1978, i.e., life of the author plus 70 years or 95 or 120 years. But these works can obtain at least 25 years of protection, so a copyright would not expire before December 31, 2002. However, if the work is published before then, protection has been extended and now lasts until December 31, 2047.

Works Published Outside the U.S. Before 1978: These works can also have complicated rules at times. Works published abroad by U.S. citizens or foreign nationals before 1928 are generally in the public domain. If they were published between 1928 and 1977, with or without compliance of U.S. formalities (such as notice, renewal, etc.), the copyright typically lasts 95 years after publication—but there are some additional conditions that could apply too which may affect this. If, however, those works were then published in the U.S. within 30 days after being published abroad, then the rules highlighted above could apply, as well as other considerations not discussed here.

Works Published Outside the U.S. After 1978: If a work is published from 1978 on, the duration of copyright protection is generally life of the author plus 70 years, or 95 years if it’s a work made for hire. However, this depends upon if the country in which the work is published has adopted the Berne Convention (of which over 180 countries are signatories) or another specified treaty, or a country which has a formal copyright relationship with the U.S. In certain instances and particular timeframes though, the work could have also entered the public domain as well.

Why Does Copyright Expire?

While copyright laws protect creators, they also ensure that society can eventually benefit from works freely, fostering creativity and cultural enrichment. Once copyright expires, the work enters the “public domain,” meaning it can be freely used by anyone.


Copyright protection is a right guaranteed by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. But unlike other constitutional rights that we have, it isn’t eternal. Its limited duration is designed to strike a balance between rewarding creators and benefiting society at large by eventually making a work free for others to use. 

Knowing the duration of your copyright can help you in planning how best to use, exploit, and protect your creative works. And knowing how long another party’s copyright lasts allows you to potentially use their expressive works to innovate, explore, and create other works of authorship that further enrich the general public’s knowledge and imagination.


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