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How long does a copyright last?

From movies to songs, books to pieces of artwork, you can hardly turn your head anymore and find a piece of intellectual property that isn't copyrighted. This is because most artists don't want to miss out on the potential royalties their piece of work could generate. They also know that if they don't protect it with a copyright, someone else could easily come along and steal it, making money off of their hard work and creative idea.

But did you know that a copyright doesn't last forever? If you're new to our blog or are unfamiliar with intellectual property law, you may have answered no to this question. If you did, you're not alone. Many people assume that the creator of a piece of intellectual property owns the rights indefinitely. But as you will soon see, this isn't necessarily the case.

The length of a copyright really depends on when the work was created and who was involved in its creation. If the work was registered after January 1, 1978, the copyright lasts for 70 years after the owner's death or, in the case of joint authorship, 70 years after the survivor's death. For creative works that were done for hire, this time frame is increased to "95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter."

But for copyrights registered before January 1, 1978, things work a little differently. That's because there are two major factors at play here: the 1909 Copyright Act and an extension to that act, which was made by Congress in 1976. If you apply both of these factors, a pre-1978 copyright could last up to 95 years after publication.

As those who follow our blog closely know, handling intellectual property rights on your own can be a tricky thing, especially if you only have a vague understanding of the law. As should be evident from our explanation of copyright length, situations can vary depending on the facts of each case. This is why it's a good idea to talk to a practiced lawyer who understands intellectual property law and can explain how the law will apply to your situation specifically.

Source: uspto.gov, "A Copyright Refresher," Jon Dudas, Accessed June 1, 2015

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