US Copyright Laws - a summary


The following is a partial précis of US Copyright Laws, particularly with reference to time limits on copyright. It was compiled by Don Furgesson, a Noteworthy user, from Internet sources, but he accepts no responsibility to its accuracy. (Most notably, this was compiled before the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act).

English copyright law is detailed at and summarised below.

I did some research on the current US Copyright laws. Shown below are some pertinent paragraphs and URL references for your further inspection.

This post is to help guide NWC users regarding questions on copyright time frames for purposes of determining length of time for copyright protection. The summary below does not necessarily represent definitive legal opinion. If in doubt, seek the advice of a copyright lawyer.

For works published in the years 1904 through 1963, the copyright lasted for 28 years from date of publication; if the copyright was not renewed, it lapsed, and the work went into the public domain. Another 28 years of protection could be obtained by filing a renewal, for a total term of 56 years (1906 comes from the fact that the U.S. effectively switched to a 47-year second term in 1962, and 1962 minus 56 (the old maximum duration of two 28-year terms) equals 1906). If the copyright was not renewed after its initial 28-year term, the work lapsed into public domain.

Generally, all copyrights secured in 1918 or earlier lapsed at the latest in 1993 and are now in public domain (1993 (last year) minus 75 equals 1918). Copyrights secured in the period 1919 through 1949 continue to exist only if they were renewed, and expire in the period 1994 through 2024.

§ 302. Duration of copyright: Works created on or after January 1, 1978

(a) In General. Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and, except as provided by the following subsections, endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and fifty years after the author's death.

(b) Joint Works. In the case of a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire, the copyright endures for a term consisting of the life of the last surviving author and fifty years after such last surviving author's death.



Works Originally 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 ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 50 years after the author's death. In the case of “a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term lasts for 50 years after the last surviving author's death. For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author's identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 75 years from publication or 100 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 for works created on or after January 1, 1978: the life-plus-50 or 75/100-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 31, 2027.

Works 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 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 current copyright law has extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights that were subsisting on January 1, 1978, making these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years.

Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, amended the 1976 Copyright Act to extend automatically the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, to the further term of 47 years. Although the renewal term is automatically provided, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal certificate for these works unless a renewal application and fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office.

P.L.102-307 makes renewal registration optional. There is no need to make the renewal filing in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term to the full 75 years. However, some benefits accrue from making a renewal registration during the 28th year of the original term.

For more detailed information on renewal of copyright and the copyright term, request Circular 15, “Renewal of Copyright”; Circular 15a, “ Duration of Copyright”; and Circular 15t, “Extension of Copyright Terms.”


Looks like 75 year copyright protection is the magic number for music published before 1/1/78.

Therefore 1999 - 75 =1924. Any music prior to 1924 should be in public domain.

Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act
Footnote: On October 7, 1998, both the US House and the Senate passed S. 505, the "Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act,"extending the term of copyright protection by another 20 years.
See for more details, or read below (information from US Copyright Office):

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, signed into law on October 27, 1998, amends the provisions concerning duration of copyright protection. Effective immediately, the terms of copyright are generally extended for an additional 20 years. Specific provisions are as follows:

Scriptorium Copyright

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English Copyright in a Nutshell
"Copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work (including a photograph) lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. The duration of copyright in a film is 70 years after the death of the last to survive of the principal director, the authors of the screenplay and dialogue, and the composer of any music specially created for the film. Sound recordings, broadcasts and cable programmes are protected for 50 years, and published editions are protected for 25 years.

However, these terms of protection essentially apply only to works originating in the United Kingdom or another state in the European Economic Area. In other cases, the term of protection granted in the United Kingdom is that given by the country of origin of the work, which may be shorter."

See for more details. Thanks to Geoff Walker for this reference.

Another source of copyright information on the web is

A good reference for IPR (Intellectual Property Rights), Copyright and Trademarks has been supplied by Sarah, a Scriptorium user, after one of her students supplied the reference.