How Long Does a Copyright Last?

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

by Joe Runge, Esq., June 2016

Copyright is a complicated form of intellectual property protection.

Patents protect inventions. Trademarks protect the use of a mark to sell a good or service. Copyright protects something far more abstract: a creative expression.

It is often very difficult to describe exactly what does and does not infringe a copyright. The legal test for infringement may rest on how similar characters in a novel are or how close one song's refrain is to another's. Copyright law applies legal tests to creative endeavor, which can be a very difficult task.

One question that is much easier to answer is how long do copyrights last? The question requires no creative interpretation, just a trio of facts:

  • Who is the work's creator
  • For whom did they create the work—themselves or an employer
  • Is the work's creator alive or dead

When Does a Copyright Begin?

Copyright protection exists the moment the creator creates. The moment the word is on the page or the image is in the camera's memory, the creator owns the right to make copies of it. Unlike a patent, the creator does not need to register or file for protection. An author has a book copyright and a composer can copyright music she plays as soon as the work is completed.

Registering a Copyright

Even though a creator does not have to register a copyright, it is still a good idea to do so. If two authors write the same poem, the first one to complete it does not necessarily have the right to stop the second author from publishing. The first author has to prove the second author copied the poem in order to show a copyright violation. It is much easier to prove infringement if the first author registers the copyright.

Registration is done through the U.S. Copyright Office. You fill out a form, pay a fee, and include a sample of the copyrighted work—some pages of the story, lines of computer code, or a photograph of your sculpture. If the first author had registered the story, then he would not have had to prove the second author ever saw it.

Once a copyright is registered, the whole world is on notice. Copyright registration makes copyright more valuable because a registered copyright is much more enforceable.

Life Plus 70

The lifetime of copyrights is no different if the creator records a song, shoots a film, or throws a pot: The copyright is enforceable for the life of the creator plus another 70 years. If an artist paints a picture at 40, and lives until 90, then 120 [50 + 70] years will elapse before copyright expiration.

You can register your own copyright or your employer can register it for you. If you are paid to write articles, then the law will presume that your employer is also paying for your copyright. The company that paid you to write the articles owns the copyright for them. Unlike copyrights owned by an author, the company's copyright lasts 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication, whichever is shorter.

No Need for Renewal

Regardless of who registers the copyright, you do not need to worry about copyright renewal. For a time in the last century, copyright holders had to file an application and pay a fee at about the halfway point of their copyright's duration. Failure to submit a renewal resulted in expiration of the copyright. Copyright laws are different now and there is no need to renew a copyright. Instead, creators can choose to release their copyright to the public in an opt-out system.

Unlike with patents and trademarks, everyone is constantly creating the kinds of works that can be protected by copyright. It is a form of intellectual property protection that everyone needs to understand, especially in the age of social media and online sharing.

Copyrighting your work may not be your top priority, but understanding how others could assert their copyrights against you is an important part of protecting yourself online. A big part of that is realizing that copyrights last a long, long time.

Protect your original works of authorship by registering a copyright. Copyright registration through LegalZoom is simple and affordable. Begin by answering a few questions. We'll work with you to assemble your application and file it with the U.S. Copyright Office.