Copyright Basics: What is Copyright Law?

What is Copyright Protected?

When Works Pass into the Public Domain

Copyright Court Decisions (summary)

 
When Works Pass into the Public Domain
Date of Work Protected From Term

Created 1-1-78 or after

As soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression

Life + 70 years1 (or in the case of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation2)

Published before 1923

In public domain

None

Published from 1923 - 63

When published with notice3

28 years plus the option to renew for another 67 years. If not so renewed, it is now in the public domain

Published from 1964 - 77

When published with notice3

28 years for the first term, plus an automatic extension of 67 years for the second term

Created before 1-1-78
but not published

1-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright

Life + 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is later

Created before 1-1-78
Published between then and 12-31-2002

1-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright

Life + 70 years or 12-31-2047, whichever is later

1 The term of joint works is measured by the life of the longest-lived author.

2 Works for hire, anonymous and pseudonymous works also have this term.  17 U.S.C. § 302(c).

3 Under the 1909 Copyright Act, works published without notice went into the public domain upon publication. Works published without notice between 1-1-78 and 3-1-89 (the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act) retained copyright protection only if an effort to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405.

Chart courtesy of Laura Gasaway, Director of the Law Library and professor of law at the University of North Carolina.