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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Copyright gives an author or creator of a work the exclusive right to copy, distribute or change that work. This includes books and any other writings as well as things such as maps, photos, paintings, sculptures, sound recordings, films, computer programs, dramatic and dance works, and architectural creations. Copyright does not last forever though. Eventually, the work becomes part of the public domain, giving anyone the right to use it for any purpose, although this does not give a person the right to claim it as their own.

The usual duration of copyright before a work enters the public domain is either 50 or 70 years after the author’s or creator’s death. The length differs between countries. About 55 per cent of nations generally have a period of life plus 50 years, including Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and South Africa. The trend is towards longer durations and around 30 per cent of countries now stipulate life plus 70 years, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, European Union members, Israel, Russia and the United States.

Some countries have other lengths of time. Mexico has used life plus 100 years since 2003, with 75 years still applying to deaths before 1928. Cote d’Ivoire uses life and 99 years, Colombia uses 80 years, India and Venezuela 60 years, and Iran and Yemen 30 years. A few countries use 25 or 75 years. In Ethiopia, copyright expires on the death of the author or creator. Afghanistan, Laos and the Marshall Islands have no copyright laws.

A number of countries simply state that they follow international treaties such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, or the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), both of which specify a minimum of 50 years. These countries are included in the 55 per cent figure above.

Length of copyright in most countries is more complex than a simple number of years. Different rules often apply when an author or creator is anonymous, corporate or a government body. In these cases, the copyright period might be longer than 50 or 70 years after the work was first published, performed or broadcast. If an unknown author or creator is subsequently found, the term might revert to 50 or 70 years after their death.

In cases where a work is not published, performed or broadcast before the author’s death, copyright in some nations might exist for 50 or 70 years after the year the work is first made public. Thus copyright in these cases can last indefinitely. Further, copyright expiry is usually based on the number of years after the end of the calendar year of death. Also, many countries have different periods for certain items, for example, photos and works of art are often less than for written works.

A few countries that have changed their copyright terms apply the new legislation retroactively, such as Mexico, whereas most have retained the previous length of time for older works. For example, if the time was changed from life plus 50 years to 70 years in, say, 2005, the 50 year period applies to deaths up until 1955. In other words, for someone who died in, say, 1952, copyright still expired in 2002 rather than 2022.

Copyright duration in the US is quite complex and the term has been extended many times over the last two centuries. The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 lengthened the period from 50 years to 70 years after the death of an author or creator, or from 75 years to 120 years after the creation of corporate or anonymous works or 95 years if the work was published.

The former periods had been set by the US Copyright Act of 1976. This Act, which was effective from 1978, eliminated the requirement for a work to be published or registered to qualify for copyright protection. Works registered or published between 1923 and 1977 have a copyright length of 95 years after publication, rather than a period based on date of death. However, copyright had to be renewed after 28 years. For works published from 1964 to 1977, this became automatic under the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992. Anything published before 1923 is no longer under copyright and is in the public domain.

In the European Union, the copyright laws of the various members were harmonised in the 1980s and 1990s. Copyright protection now lasts for the life of the author or creator plus 70 years in all member countries. Where a national law gave a longer duration as at 1 July 1995, this period remains at the original length. In countries that had a shorter copyright duration, certain works already in the public domain had their copyright restored.

The length of time a work is protected and other aspects of copyright can be complex and differ between countries. It is always wise to check a particular nation’s copyright laws and period until copyright expiry before thinking of using a particular work in any way. And remember, you cannot pass it off as your own, even if it is out of copyright.