Crash course on copyrights: Duration of copyright

In most countries, the duration of copyright is dependent on the duration of the author's life. After he dies, his estate can exercise the copyright for at least 50 more years. In most countries, the term is even longer: 70 years after the author's death.

Normal duration of copyright protection

The Berne Convention stipulates that the duration of the term for copyright protection is the life of the author plus at least 50 years after his death. For some categories of works, the minimum duration is shorter. For example, the minimum term for applied art is 25 years. Movies have a minimum term of 50 years. Countries are of course free to choose a longer term of protection. Most countries have done so.

Duration of copyright in the European Union

The member states of the European Union have, following an EC directive, increased the term to life of the author and 70 years after his death. Although this was not the original intention, this extension applies retroactively. Works that had ended up in the public domain because the author was dead for 50 years now received an additional twenty years of protection.

This retroactive application created some problems for people who thought they were now free to use the works. The EU member states have various provisions for this situation. Unfortunately these differ from state to state, making it hard to say what is and is not permitted.

Duration of copyright in the USA

The USA has recently followed this increase, and now in the US the copyright term also is life plus 70 years. Originally (in 1790), the US copyright term was 14 years after publication, with an option for another 14 years.

This last extension was challenged on grounds of unconstitutionality. The US Constitution only gives Congress the right to make a copyright law that grants copyright protection "for a limited time". It was argued that regular increases of the copyright term effectively make copyright protection last indefinitely, which goes against the spirit of the constitutional provision. So far, this challenge has been rejected by the courts, arguing that a term of seventy years is still a limited term, even though it is longer than the previous term. The US Supreme Court concurred in 2003.

Anonymous works and corporate works

For works published anonymously, or published by a corporation, the term of protection is 70 years after first publication. In these cases, there is no natural person who qualifies as the maker of the work. It is then not possible to make the term of protection dependent on the life of the author.

In the USA, the above-mentioned extension also applies to such anonymous and corporate works. The term is now 95 years from the year of first publication, or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

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