When Do Copyrighted Works Become Public Domain

Copyrights Expire After a Certain Time Based on Changing Laws

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Copyrights are in force for a considerable length of time under U.S. law before a work enters into the public domain. The duration of a copyright is determined by when a work was created, whether it was published, and whether the author died. Additionally, if an author has died, but the date of death is not known, different laws apply.

Generally, works published after 1992 but before 1978 are considered copyright protected for 95 years from the date the work was first published. Also, an unpublished work that was created before 1978 is still protected under copyright laws for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years after the author's death.

Different facets of copyright laws change how and when the general expiration dates apply. For example, works published without proper notice before 1989 may already be in the public domain because proper copyright procedures were not followed. Additionally, copyrights may be renewed for certain lengths of time, thereby extending the natural expiration date.

Works in the Public Domain for 2019

In 2019, several first-time copyright events occurred in the United States. For instance, 2019 marks the first year since 1998 in which the majority of media from the previous year expired and entered the public domain. Also, under the Copyright Term Extension Act, in 2019—after a 95-year copyright term—1923 works entered the public domain, with 1924 works becoming public domain in 2020, and so forth. U.S. media in the public domain also includes an unpublished work from authors who died in 1948.

Examples of U.S. works that entered the public domain in 2019 include: "Kiss Me, Kate," a musical by Cole Porter; The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran; The White Rose, by D.W. Griffith; and the "Ten Commandments," in black and white, by B. DeMille.

International Copyright Laws

There are no universal copyright laws that apply in all countries. Therefore, check current copyright laws in the country where you reside or are planning to establish right to your works to make sure you are in compliance.

Automatic Copyright Protection

Anything you create, or conceive, that is an original “form of expression” is automatically copyrighted under U.S. law. Generally, this automatic copyright protection is good for 50 to 70 years throughout the world.

In the United States, current copyright laws protect individual authors for creations rendered on or after January 1, 1978, beginning the day the work was created. This automatic copyright lasts for 70 years after the author’s death.

Other Copyright Laws Still Affect the Duration of Author’s Rights

Legislation on copyright laws is always subject to change. For example, U.S. law required that copyrights be renewed every 28 years. Any copyrighted material that was published before 1964 that was subject to the 28-year renewal law, and has not been renewed, is now public domain material in the United States.

Additionally, all books and other published works prior to, and including, 1923 are considered public domain in the United States.

Exclusions to Limited Duration on Copyrights

These laws only pertain to material published inside the United States, that was created by U.S. citizens, or someone residing legally in the country at the time of U.S. publication. Additionally, Fair Use laws also permit people to use works in limited ways without obtaining permission from the author.

Copyrighted materials from other countries are still protected as long as the person is a non-U.S. citizen, and still holds their copyrights in their own country.