Who Owns Copyrights?
How Long Is a Work Copyright-Protected in the
How Long Is a Work Copyright-Protected
What Is the “Public Domain”?
The Berne Convention & International Laws
What is Copyright?
is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States
17, U.S. Code) to the creators of “original works
of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic,
and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available
for both published and unpublished works. Section 106 of the 1976
Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive
right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
reproduce the work in copies or phono records;
prepare derivative works based upon the work;
distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer
of ownership, or by rental, lease, or
perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic,
and choreographic works, pantomimes,
and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary,
musical, dramatic, and choreographic works,
pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual
a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by
means of a digital audio transmission.
In addition to copyright, certain authors of works of visual art
also have the rights of attribution and integrity as described in
section 106A of the 1976 Copyright Act.
It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by
the copyright law to the copyright holder.
Who Owns Copyrights?
Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in
fixed, tangible form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately
becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the
author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully
In the case of
works “made for hire”, where an artist
has created the work while in his/her capacity of employee, the
employer and not the employee is considered to be the author and
holder. Where a work was created jointly by more than one artist,
the authors of a joint work are all co-owners of the copyright
in the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. Copyright
in each separate contribution to a periodical or other collective
work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole
and vests initially with the author of each contribution.
The mere ownership
of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other work does not give
the possessor of that work its copyright. The law
provides that transfer of ownership of any material object that
embodies a protected work does not of itself convey the copyright
or any interest
in the copyright. This remains in the possession of the creator
and is often referred to as the underlying artist’s copyright,
distinct from the physical object which embodies it.
or all of the copyright owner's exclusive rights or any subdivision
of those rights may be transferred to another party, but the transfer
of exclusive rights is not valid unless that transfer is in writing
and signed by the owner of the copyright or such owner's duly authorized
agent. Such transfers are comparatively rare in the U.S. and are
almost never knowingly engaged in by European artists. For more
on this subject, go to “Related Topics” and see the
pages titled “Do U.S. Owners of Works of Art Also Control
How Long Is a Work Copyright-Protected in the United States?
created on or after January 1, 1978: A work that is
created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after
January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its
creation and is given a term of copyright protection enduring for
the lifetime of the artist plus an additional 70 years after the
artist's death. In the case of "a joint work prepared by two
or more artists who did not work for hire," the term lasts
for 70 years after the last surviving artist's death. For works
made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless
the artist's identity is revealed in Copyright Office records),
the duration of copyright will be 95 years from first publication
or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
Works originally created before January 1, 1978, but
not published or registered by that date: These works
have been automatically brought under the statute and are now given
federal copyright protection. The duration of copyright in these
works will generally be computed in the same way as works created
on or after January 1, 1978, namely, the life-plus-70 or 95/120-year
terms will apply to them as well. The law provides that in no case
will the term of copyright for works in this category expire before
December 31, 2002, and for works published on or before December
31, 2002, the term of copyright will not expire before December
originally created and published or registered before January 1,
1978: Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright
was secured either on the date a work was published with a copyright
notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered
in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright endured for a
first term of 28 years from the date it was secured. During the
last (28th) year of the first term, the copyright was eligible for
renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from
28 to 47 years for copyrights that were subsisting on January 1,
1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round
Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term
of protection of 75 years.
Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act: The Sonny Bono
Copyright Extension Act, enacted on October 27, 1998, further extended
the renewal term of copyrights still subsisting on that date by
an additional 20 years, providing for a total term of protection
of 95 years from the date of first U.S. publication if the work
was published before January 1, 1978. For all works created or first
published after January 1, 1978, the term of protection was extended
by 20 years from the previous term of protection of the lifetime
of the artist plus 50 years, to the lifetime of the artist plus
works: All works that are unpublished, regardless
of the nationality of the author, are protected in the United States.
Works that are first published in the United States or in a country
with which the United States has a copyright treaty or that are
created by a citizen or domiciliary of a country with which the
United States has a copyright treaty are also protected.
How Long Is a Work Copyright-Protected Worldwide?
The term of copyright protection varies from country to country around
the world, as determined by national legislation. The countries of
the European Union, however, harmonized their respective terms in
1994. In the E.U. countries, the term of protection is the lifetime
of the artist plus 70 years.
Is the “Public Domain”?
that is no longer copyright protected is considered to be “in
the public domain”. It should be noted, however, that photographs
of works of art in the public domain may themselves be copyrighted
and will likely require a license for publication, even though
the public domain works which are the subject of the photos are
Berne Convention & International
is no such thing as an "international copyright" that
will automatically protect an author's works throughout the entire
world. Generally speaking, protection against unauthorized use
in a particular country depends on the national laws of that
country. However, most countries do offer protection to foreign
certain conditions, and these conditions have been greatly simplified
by international copyright treaties and conventions.
most significant international copyright instrument is the Berne
Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The Berne Convention has approximately 170
members, including the United States which joined in 1989. The Berne
Convention is based on national treatment, meaning that a Berne
member country must extend the same treatment to the works of nationals
of other Berne member countries as are enjoyed by its own nationals.
Furthermore, the Convention obligates member countries to adopt
minimum standards for copyright protection.
Universal Copyright Convention of September 1952 ("UCC
Agreement") was created to provide an alternative to the Berne
Convention. The United States ratified the UCC in 1955. The UCC
imposes fewer substantive requirements than the Berne Convention.
For countries that are members of both the Berne Convention and
the UCC, in cases of conflict between the two conventions the Berne
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
of April 15, 1994 ("TRIPS Agreement") became an annex
to the agreement establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In addition to providing for international minimum standards of
protection in the area of intellectual property, TRIPS also establishes
standards for the enforcement of such rights. It also restores U.S.
copyright to foreign works which were deemed to have fallen into
the public domain by virtue of their failure to fulfill the formalities
previously required by U.S. Copyright Law. (For more about the results
of the TRIPS Agreement, see “Restoration of Foreign Copyrights
in the U.S.” in the “Related Topics” section of
World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty of
December 23, 1996 ("WIPO Copyright Treaty") also supplements
the provisions of the Berne Convention to provide stronger international
protection to copyrighted material in the digital environment.