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Some time ago I did some research on when would any work fall into public domain. I wrote part of it down because I wanted to make a crossover rules page on copyright and public domain. I still want to do it but I don't know when I will, so I might as well post this here for now.

Despite being very long this is not complete and I would also want to summarize and rewrite certain parts, that's why it's not ready to be in an article.

Copyright expiration term

This section is meant as a quick way to see when did/will a work enter public domain based on when it was created and when did its author die.
The terms actually vary depending on country, media, need of renewal, and wether it's a work of singular or corporate authorship, so this is a far from accurate summarization only meant to give a general idea, but to know when exactly a work entered public domain it's best to check the specific case. Also consider that this list is rounded up to years, while certain terms are applied to the specific date, so for example a work released in the US in early 1868 might still fall in the 1818-1867 group because its copyright expired before the Copyright act of 1909 came into effect. Additionally, in some specific cases an expired copyright was revived after a new act passed; this list assumes that once a work entered public domain it never exits it.

United Kingdom (creation criterion)

The criterion of year of creation is applied in the UK to all works released prior to 1815, and it's one of two criteria for works released between 1815 and 1841.

Creation year Copyright duration Expiration year
1662-1695Stationers' Company discretion
1695-170921 years1716-1730
1710-181428 (14+14) years1738-1842
(1724-1828 if not renewed)
1815-184145 (14+14+17) years or
life of the author + 7 years
at least 1860-1886
(1829-1855 if not renewed; 1843-1869 if not extended)
1842+Life of the author + 50 or 70 yearsat least 1892+

United Kingdom (death of the author criterion)

The criterion of year of the author's death is one of two criteria applied in the UK to works released between 1815 and 1841, and the only criterion applied to works released since 1842. (The count starts at 1835, because only the creation criterion would be applied to works of authors who died more than 7 years before the Copyright Act of 1842)

Year of deathCopyright duration Expiration year
1835-1879Life of the author + 7 years
or 45 years total
at least 1842-1886
1879-1937Life of the author + 50 years.1929-1987
1938+Life of the author + 70 years2008+

United States

The criterion of year of creation is applied in the US to all works released prior to 1978 and to works of corporate authorship released since. The criterion of year of the author's death is applied to works created by singular persons since 1978.

Creation yearCopyright duration Expiration year
Before 1790Depends on singular state laws
1790-180328 (14+14) years1818-1831
(1804-1817 if not renewed)
1804-181742 (14+14+14) years1846-1859
(1818-1831 if not renewed the first time
1832-1845 if not renewed the second time)
1818-186742 (28+14) years1860-1909
(1846-1895 if not renewed)
1868-190556 (28+28) years1924-1961
(1896-1933 if not renewed)
1906-192028 years + delay to 19761976
(1934-1948 if not renewed)
1921-192256 (28+28) years1977-1978
(1949-1950 if not renewed)
1923-196395 (28+67) years2018-2058
(1951-1991 if not renewed)
1964-197795 years2059-2072
1978+Singular: life of the author + 70 years
Corporate: 95 years
Singular: at least 2048+
Corporate: 2073+

History of copyright terms

This section gives a history of copyright terms across the world, although it's not entirely comprehensive nor detailed. Its main purpose is to justify the conclusions in the previous section. All dates refer to when the act as a whole, or its specific discussed laws come into effect.

United Kingdom

Licensing of the Press Act 1662

1662

This act grants the Stationers' Company exclusive rights to print and to license, therefore giving them monopoly, but also serving as a sort of primordial copyright. The act had to be renewed every two years, but was not renewed in 1695.

Statute of Anne

April 10, 1710

First Copyright statute, also known as the Copyright Act of 1710, it grants the author themself right to copy or license their work. The act grants works published since April 10, 1710 protection for 14 years after the creation plus a possible renewal of 14 additional years if the creator is still alive, providing 28 potential years of protection in total. The statute also grants 21 of protection for works already in print. For a work to be copyrighted it needed to be regitered at the Stationers' Company.

This is only applied to Scotland and England, and then also to Ireland since 1800, meaning that foreign works were not copyrighted.

Copyright Act 1842

July 1, 1842

Copyright is granted for 45 years since the first publication and 7 years after the author's death, meaning that both criteria had to be met for the work to fall into public domain. This only concerns works of the United Kingdom and registration is required.

Works under previous terms would be extended automatically to the new terms, except if the copyrights for a work had been being sold by the author, in which case the extention would only happen upon an agreement between the proprietor and the author. This means that works still in their 28 year protection (meaning works created after 1814) would be extended to 45 years of protection, but if the author had sold their copyright to a different party they could choose to make a new deal with them to extend the term, or let the copyright expire under the old term instead.

Berne Convention of 1886

September 9, 1886

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, imposes a minimum standard for copyright protection to all members of the "Berne Union" ( Belgium, France, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Liberia, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, and United Kingdom; Japan also entered in 1899), although each nation is able to extend the copyright with national laws. Nation-specific laws are applied to all works published in the nation, regardless of its country of origin, however some countries apply a "rule of shorter term", meaning that the country of origin's copyright is used instead if it is a shorter term. The minimum copyright protection is the entire life of the author plus 50 years. No registration or notice is needed for a work to be copyrighted.

When it comes to the UK, it extended works under previous terms to the new ones, but didn't revive works already in public domain, meaning works released more than 45 years prior (before 1841) and whose author had died at least 7 years prior (before 1880) would already be public domain.

Copyright Act 1911

1 July, 1912

Copyright laws are extended to the entire British Empire.

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

November 15, 1988

An extention to the terms of the Berne Convention, works are now protected for the entire life of the author plus 70 years.

This means that works of authors who

Computer Programs Directive

May 17, 1991

Computer sofware is now granted the same copyright as literary works, at the entire life of the author plus 50 years. Prior to this, computer softwar was only protected by country-specific laws.

United States of America

Copyright act of 1790

May 31, 1790

Fist federal copyright act of the United States, similar to the Statute of Anne it grants protection for 14 years after the creation, plus a possible renewal of 14 additional years if the creator is still alive, providing 28 potential years of protection in total. This is only applied to American citizens or residents.

This means that most foreign works released in the 18th and 19th centuries have always been public domain in the US, except for specific cases where a foreing author had an American citizen collaborator or they got American citizenship themself.

Copyright Act of 1831

effective February 3, 1831

The original copyright term is extended from 14 years to 28 years after the creation. With the renewal kept at 14 years, the total potential protection is 42 years.

This extention didn't revive expired copyrights, so works that were released in 1803 or earlier would already be public domain, as is the case for any work released in 1817 or earlier that didn't have its copyright renewed after 14 years. Works that were renewed and were still within the 28 year total protection, would now be considered within their first 28 year protection and be eligible for an additional 14 year renewal.

International Copyright Act of 1891

July 1, 1891

For the first time the US grants protection of foreingn works, given that they're deposited in the Library of Congress in Washington by the time the work is first published anywhere in the World. In the early 1900s this requirement was extended to at least 30 days since the work is first published anywhere.

Either way this means that certain foreing works published in the late 19th century / early 20th century were copyrighted in the US while certain works weren't, depending on wether they deposited the work in Washington within indicated terms.

Copyright Act of 1909

effective July 1, 1909

The renewal of copyright is extended from 14 years to 28 years of renewal. With the original copyright term kept at 28 years, the total potential protection is 56 years. Like the 1831 act, this would extend the term of older works still in copyright, but it wouldn't be retroactive to works already in public domain, so all works released prior to 1868 and all works released between 1868 and 1895 that weren't renewed would already be public domain, while works that were currently in their renewal term would have it automatically extended to 28 years.

A notice is needed (what about in previous acts?)

A 1912 amend added protection to motion pictures specifically; before then they had to be registered as collections of still photographs.

Buenos Aires Convention

1910

An alternative to the Berne Convention involving the United States and most Latin American countries, it grants protection for the shorter of the terms of the protecting country and the source country of the work, but the work needs to have a copyright notice.

Renewal acts of 1962-1976

1962-1976

A series of nine acts that extended the copyright term for works about to enter public domain, done to ensure that they would remain copyrighted at least until the passage of the new 1976 copyright act. The result is that all works that would enter public domain between 1962 and 1975 instead entered public domain in 1976 (save of course for those that wouldn't have the copyright renewed after the first term). Specifically, all works released up to 1905 were already in public domain by 1961, while all works released between 1906 and 1920 entered public domain in 1976 (given their renewal).

Because the 1976 act would only come into effect in 1978, this left a two year window that let works fall in the public domain according to the original terms, so all works released in 1921 and 1922 (and were renewed after the first 28 years) entered public domain in 1977 and 1978.

Copyright Act of 1976

Effective January 1, 1978

The first American attempt to conform with the European standards, new works released since 1978 would be protected for 50 years after the author's death for creations of singular authors, and 75 years after publication or 100 years after creation for works of corporate authorship. Also no notice is needed for a work to be copyrighted.

In the case of corporate authorship the work falls into public when the first of the two terms expires.

To works created before 1978 that had not entered public domain yet (meaning those created less than 56 years prior), the renewal was extended from 28 years to 47, so the total potential protection for older works is 75 years. This means that works created between 1923 and 1977 had an initial protection of 28 years which had to be renewed, and failing to do so caused certain of those works to fall into public domain between 1951 and 2005; works that had their copyright renewed would instead be protected for a total of 75 years meaning that they would become public domain between 1998 and 2052.

Starting with this act all terms of copyright will run through the end of the calendar year in which they expire. This means that the expiration is no longer meant at the exact anniversary of the work's creation, but rather at December 31 of the last year when the work is copyrighted; so for example a work created at October 1960 would be protected for 75 years meaning all the way through December 31, 2034, entering public domain on January 1, 2035.

Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988

March 1, 1989

The United States officially enters the Berne Convention, granting minimum copyright to works from all members of the "Berne Union". Deposit at Washington is still needed though. (so what is the addition specifically??) This however only concerns works that would be published since March 1, 1989 with no retroactivity on prior works.

Copyright Renewal Act of 1992

June 26, 1992

An ament to the Copyright Act of 1976, the renewal of copyright for works published before 1978 is made automatic. This means that works still in their initial 28 year protection would now all be protected for a total of 75 years. Specifically, works created since 1964 would not enter public domain before 2039, while works created between 1923 and 1963 might have entered public domain between 1951 and 1991 if their copyright wasn't renewed.

Uruguay Round Agreements Act

January 1, 1996

The Unites States grants copyright to foreing works that previously weren't copyrighted there. This so called "copyright restoration" caused for the first time in the US works that previously were public domain to now be copyrighted.

Copyright Term Extension Act

October 27, 1998

Also known as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, it extends 20 more years to all terms of works still not in public domain, so all works released since 1978 would be protected for 70 years after the author's death for creations of singular authors, and 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation for works of corporate authorship. For works created before 1978 that had not entered public domain yet (therefore being works created between 1923 and 1977 that had their copyright renewed if needed) the (automatic since 1992) renewal was extended from 47 years to 67, so the total potential protection for older works is 95 years.

Other Europe

Copyright Duration Directive

November 24, 1993

Trying to uniform copyright law across the EU, the expiration in all countries is now at least the entire life of the author plus 70 years.

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