There’s no confusion about how long you and your estate will have copyright protection for current material: life plus 70 years. But for those whose careers and images go back to the middle of the last century or earlier, here are some important things to note:
Works originally copyrighted before 1950 and renewed before 1978: Copyrights already in their second term (an extension of 28 years of protection following an initial 28 years, for a total of 56 years) on January 1, 1978, automatically received an extension for up to a maximum of 95 years (a 28-year term plus 67 years, expiring at the end of the calendar year in which the 95th anniversary of the original date of copyright occurred). No further renewal is required.
Works originally copyrighted between January 1, 1950, and December 31, 1963: Any copyrights whose first 28-year terms were secured between January 1, 1950, and December 31, 1963, did not receive automatic extension when the new copyright laws went into effect and had to have been renewed within a strict one-year time limit. If those copyrights were renewed in time, they received a second term of 67 years, instead of 28, adding up to a full 95 years of protection. If those copyrights were not renewed in time, they expired at the end of their 28th calendar year, and protection was lost permanently.
Works originally copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977: Any copyrights that were secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, received automatic renewal, even if renewal registration was not made. Those whose work falls into this area can still file a renewal application because certain legal benefits may come from doing that, but to do so is not strictly needed.
Basically, copyrights that had already been renewed and were in their second term at any time between December 31, 1976 and December 31, 1977 were automatically extended for a total length of 95 years from the end of the year in which they were originally secured. The example the Copyright Office gives to clarify this is the following: A work that was first copyrighted on April 10, 1923, and renewed (after its initial term of 28 years) between April 10, 1950 and April 10, 1951 for another 28 years, would formerly have fallen into the public domain after April 10,1979. The current law extended that copyright through the end of 2018, or to a total of 95 years.
Works originally created on and after January 1, 1978: These works, which include all those being created now, receive a single copyright term of creator’s life plus 70 years after the creator’s death. When a work has been created by two or more authors, the term lasts until 70 years after the last surviving creator’s death. If the work was “made for hire” — and in cases of anonymous and pseudonymous works, unless the author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records — the term of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
Remember: If your work entered into the public domain, either because it was time for it to do so, or because you failed to renew the copyright in a timely manner, that copyright has been lost forever. There is no procedure for restoring protection for works in which copyright has been lost for any reason.