The Basics of Copyright Law: Registration and Duration

Although many types of “creative” and “original” Works are deemed to have copyright protection from the moment that the Work is created and “fixed in any tangible place”, in order for the owner of the copyright to receive greater rights and increase his or her ability to protect those rights the Work should be registered.

The United States Copyright Office is a division of the United States Department of Commerce. Registering with this office will greatly enhance the copyright owner’s ability to seek various types of damages if the copyright has been infringed upon by an outside party. One should seek legal advice before applying for registering a copyrighted Work, as it should be determined whether the Work is copyrightable, i.e. the type of Work for which a registration can be obtained. Simply applying to register a copyright does not necessarily mean that the work in question is copyrightable.

The duration of copyrights varies from what type of work is in question as well as when it was created or registered. A work that was created on or after January 1, 1978 is protected from the time it is created, usually for the author’s life plus 70 years after the author’s death. For “a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term is for 70 years after the death of last surviving author.

The copyright term for works created and published or registered before January 1, 1978 is the same as for those created on or after January 1, 1978, namely, life of the author plus 70 years. The 95/120-year terms for works for hire apply to pre January 1, 1978 to these works also. However, the term of copyright for these works cannot expire before December 31, 2002. For works published on or before December 31, 2002, the term will not expire before December 31, 2047.

A “work made for hire” is one prepared by an employee within the scope of his or
her employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned for certain types of use use such as a contribution to a collective work, a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, a translation, a supplementary work, a compilation or an instructional text if the parties agree in writing instrument that the work will be considered a work made for hire.

The copyright term for works made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records) is either 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

As with all areas of Copyright and Intellectual Property Law, it is advisable to consult with an attorney that specializes in this area. A number of law schools offer what is known as a Masters of Intellectual Property degree and the advice of an attorney with this level of scholarship can be essential from the moment a work is created all the way through the enforcement or recovery of any infringement.

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