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Published: 9 November 2020

When Does Copyright Expire?

Copyright exists the moment that a piece of work is created, and offers the creator a lifetime of ownership over their intellectual property. But how long does it last after that lifetime? Does the creator still own their copyright?

It may seem straightforward on the surface, but there are many different options that can affect the length of a person’s copyright.

You may be familiar with the term ‘public domain.’ This is where most works will end up once their copyright expires -- but when it enters the public domain depends on many factors.

The length of time the copyright will continue to last for after the death of the creator is dependent on country, date of initial copyright protection/publication, and the type of work created.

The Berne Convention stipulates that the duration of the term for copyright protection is the life of the author plus at least 50 years after their death.

In the UK, copyright generally expires 70 years after the death of the creator, with some exceptions.

Books, plays, music, works of art and films all have 70 years of copyright after the death of their creator, or the last collaborator of the work. For broadcasts, however, it is 50 years from when the broadcast is first aired.

This length of time could be longer or shorter depending on the country. The longest lasting copyright belongs to Mexico, where the rights remain with the creator until 100 years after their death.

But does copyright always have to expire? What else can happen to it?

In some places, copyrights can be extended, or the children of creators can take on their parent’s copyright after their death. This makes things complicated for those wishing to make derivative works, such as we have seen with the Netflix adaptation of ‘Enola Holmes’ and the following copyright dispute with the Conan Doyle Estate.

Copyright holders can also forfeit their copyright. Banksy recently lost copyright on his ‘Flower Thrower’ artwork due to his continued anonymity making it almost impossible for him to defend his ownership in a copyright dispute.

Some creators choose to freely donate their created works into the public domain so that others can use them.

Alternatively, those who make an educational product may have their work reused in a classroom or library under fair dealing.

J.M Barrie, author of Peter Pan, gifted his copyrights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Later, in exceptional circumstances, the government gave Barrie’s Peter Pan a continual copyright, with no expiration.

This means that, as the new permanent copyright holder, the hospital will keep on receiving royalty payments for Barrie’s works for as long as the hospital is running.

So how much influence does the copyright holder have over the length of their copyright?

As we now know, there is a lot that can happen to a creator’s copyright. The copyright owner does have some measure of power over the duration of their copyright, though. This could be through an extension (where possible, given permission depending on country), by gifting, leaving, or donating the copyright.

Like any possession, intellectual property is a personal asset that the copyright owner has control over, with choices on what they can do with it during, and after, their lifetime.

If you're the creator of a work which falls under the category of copyright, then it's important to obtain a date/time stamped proof of copyright registration of your work. Registration of your work should ideally be done before its publication.

Disclaimer: The information given on this website does not constitute legal
advice. We recommend that you seek specialist legal advice in accordance with specific circumstances.

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