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Types of Works and Copyright Duration in the United States 

Types of Works and Copyright Duration in the United States
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Types of Works and Copyright Duration in the United States

The length of copyright protection in the United States depends on several factors: when the work was created (key dates are before or after January 1, 1978), the number of authors, and the type of work (eg, work made for hire or owned by the federal government).43 See the Table for examples of types of works, conditions, and terms of copyright protection.43

Works Created After 1978.

To be protected by copyright law, a work must be original. For works created by a single author, copyright belongs to that author from the instant of its creation and for 70 years after the author’s death.14(§302) Copyright in works published on or after January 1, 1978, is protected for a term that covers the author’s life plus 70 years after the author’s death.14,43,44 See the Table for details on other conditions and terms and see also “Joint Works” and “Works Made for Hire” below.

Works Created Before 1978.

Several different rules apply to works created before 1978 and depend on whether the work was published, previous copyright duration terms, and whether the copyright has been renewed (Table).43,44 Unpublished works created before 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Works published between 1923 and 1977 are protected for 95 years after date of publication provided that a copyright notice was published and appropriate renewals were made43-45 (see also 5.6.6, Copyright Notice and Registration). Works that were published before 1923 are now in the public domain.43

Table. Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United Statesa

Unpublished Works

Type of Work

Copyright Term

What Was in Public Domain as of January 1, 2006b

Unpublished works

Life of the author plus 70 years

Works from authors who died before 1936

Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire

120 years from date of creation

Works created before 1886

Unpublished works created before 1978 that were published after 1977 but before 2003

Life of the author plus 70 years or December 31, 2047, whichever is greater

Nothing; the soonest the works can enter the public domain is January 1, 2048

Unpublished works created before 1978 that were published after December 31, 2002

Life of the author plus 70 years

Works of authors who died before 1935

Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not knownc

120 years from date of creationd

Works created before 1886d

Published Works

Date of Publicatione


Copyright Termb

Before 1923


In the public domain

1923 through 1977

Published without a copyright notice

In the public domain

1978 to March 1, 1989

Published without notice, and without subsequent registration

In the public domain

1978 to March 1, 1989

Published without notice, but with subsequent registration

70 Years after the death of author, or if work for hire, the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creationb

1923 through 1963

Published with notice but copyright was not renewedg

In the public domain

1923 through 1963

Published with notice and copyright was renewedg

95 Years after publication dateb

1964 through 1977

Published with notice

95 Years after publication dateb

1978 to March 1, 1989

Published with notice

70 Years after death of author, or if work for hire, the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creationb

After March 1, 1989


70 Years after death of author, or if work for hire, the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creationb

a This table was adapted and reproduced with permission from Hirtle.43 It was first published in Hirtle PB. Recent changes to the copyright law: copyright term extension. Archival Outlook. January/February 1999. This version is current as of January 2006. The most recent version is found at

The table is based in part on Gasaway LN. When US works pass into the public domain,, and similar tables found in Malaro MC. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press; 1998:155-156. A useful copyright duration chart by Mary Minow, organized by year, is found at See also Library of Congress, Copyright Office, Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright: Provisions of the Law Dealing With the Length of Copyright Protection.44

b All terms of copyright run through the end of the calendar year in which they would otherwise expire, so a work enters the public domain on the first of the year following the expiration of its copyright term. For example, a book published on March 15, 1923, will enter the public domain on January 1, 2019, not March 16, 2018 (1923 + 95 = 2018).

c Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known may still be copyrighted, but certification from the Copyright Office that it has no record to indicate whether the person is living or died less than 70 years before is a complete defense to any action for infringement. See 17 USC § 302(e).

d Presumption as to the author’s death requires a certified report from the Copyright Office that its records disclose nothing to indicate that the author of the work is living or died less than 70 years before.

e“Publication” was not explicitly defined in the Copyright Law before 1976, but the 1909 act indirectly indicated that publication was when copies of the first authorized edition were placed on sale, sold, or publicly distributed by the proprietor of the copyright or under his authority.

f Not all published works are copyrighted. Works prepared by an officer or employee of the US government as part of that person’s official duties receive no copyright protection in the United States. For much of the 20th century, certain formalities had to be followed to secure copyright protection. For example, some books had to be printed in the United States to receive copyright protection, and failure to deposit copies of works with the Register of Copyright could result in the loss of copyright. The requirements that copies include a formal notice of copyright and that the copyright be renewed after 28 years were the most common conditions and are specified in the table.

g A 1961 Copyright Office study found that fewer than 15% of all registered copyrights were renewed. For books, the figure was even lower: 7%. See Ringer B. Study No. 31: renewal of copyright. In: Copyright Law Revision: Studies Prepared for the Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-sixth Congress, First [-Second] Session. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1961:220. A good guide to investigating the copyright and renewal status of published work is Demas S, Brogdon JL. Determining copyright status for preservation and access: defining reasonable effort. Library Resources and Technical Services 1997;41(4):323-334. See also Library of Congress, Copyright Office. Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Copyright Office; 2004.

Joint Works.

A joint work is a work prepared by 2 or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole. For such works, the 70-year term begins after the death of the last surviving author.14(§302)

Works Made for Hire.

Works created by an individual who is paid by another specifically for such work are covered by a particular provision of the copyright statute. In these cases, the law recognizes the employer or the party contracting for the work as the owner of the copyright in the work. Works made for hire generally fall into 2 categories.14(§101),46 The first category is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment duties, such as a journal editorial written by an editor who is employed by or otherwise contracted to work as an editor by the journal’s owner. The second category comprises certain specially ordered or commissioned works. Examples include a news story written by a freelance journalist or an index prepared by an individual under contract. In these cases, although a written copyright assignment is not necessary, the parties must sign a written agreement before the work is produced specifying that the work is to be a work made for hire. Copyright duration for works made for hire is 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the date of the work’s creation, whichever is shorter.14(§302)

Works Created by Anonymous and Pseudonymous Authors.

The same terms of copyright duration that apply to works made for hire apply to works published by anonymous or pseudonymous authors—95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the date the work was created, whichever is shorter. If 1 or more authors' names are disclosed and registered with the US Copyright Office before the 95-year or 120-year term expires, the term changes to 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.14(§302),44

Works in the Public Domain or Created by the US Government.

A work is in the public domain if it has failed to meet the requirements of copyright protection or its copyright protection has expired. Works in the public domain may be used freely by anyone without permission. US works published before 1923 are now in the public domain.43 In 2006, the Project Gutenberg website included more than 19 000 books that were in the public domain.47 Works created by US federal government employees in the course of their employment are also in the public domain14(§105) (see 5.6.1, Ownership and Control of Data, and 5.6.5, Copyright Assignment or License, Exception—US Federal Government Works). However, works produced by state and local governments are subject to copyright protection.

Works created by other national governments are subject to the copyright laws of their respective countries and perhaps the Berne Convention, WIPO Copyright Treaties, or other international treaties (see 5.6.12, International Copyright Protection).

Collective Works.

A collective work comprises a number of independent contributions (usually from many authors), which constitute separate and independent works in themselves, and are assembled into a collective whole. Examples of collective works include journals, magazines, multiauthored textbooks, and encyclopedias.14(§101) Copyright in the independent contributions is separate from copyright in the collective work as a whole and initially belongs to the individual authors until they transfer copyright to the owner of the collective work, usually a publisher. Publishers that require authors of collective works (such as authors of a journal article) to transfer copyright should require such transfer from each author, not just the corresponding author. Editors of collective works may also be required to transfer copyright assignment or a publication license if their contributions are not already covered under work for hire or other employment agreements. Thus, both the individual articles (independent works) and the journal (collective work) can be protected by copyright.

Compilations and Derivative Works.

According to US copyright law, compilations are works “formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or data that are selected, coordinated, and arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes original work of authorship.”14(§101) Examples of compilations include a compendium of previously published articles on a specific theme or topic or a collection of abstracts. The basis for protection of a compilation is the judgment required to select and arrange the material.38 In this context, the 1991 Supreme Court ruling in Feist Publications v Rural Telephone Service Co is worth noting.48 In that case, a regional telephone company used a local telephone company’s directory without its permission. The local company sued for copyright infringement and lost. The court held that the “data” in the directory (collections of public telephone numbers) had no substantial originality or creativity and that comprehensive collections of data arranged in conventional formats do not merit copyright protection.48

Derivative works are those based on 1 or more preexisting works, such as an abridgment, condensation, or republication in a different format, language, or media.14(§101) Examples of compilations and derivative works include revised editions of books or translated articles that are republished individually or collected with others in an international edition.

Scientific journal publishers typically request that authors transfer broad rights to their work in the form of either a copyright transfer or exclusive license, or a nonexclusive license that includes rights to produce compilations and derivative works. Such publishers often receive royalties from the distribution and sale of compilations and derivative works. In addition, publishers who own copyright or have exclusive licenses in individual articles are legally able to address misuse or piracy of such works.

Revised Editions.

A revised edition of a previously copyrighted work may be regarded as a separately copyrighted work if there is substantial original new work in the new edition. The Chicago Manual of Style defines substantial as change that occurs in 1 or more of the essential elements of the work: text, introduction, notes, appendixes, or tables and illustrations (if they are integral to the work).45(p10) Thus, a new foreword or preface, the addition of a few references, or corrections to the original text do not constitute a revised edition, but they may be included in subsequent printings with an explanation on the copyright notice page. For example, this edition of the AMA Manual of Style constitutes a major revision resulting in a new copyrighted work. For revised editions, any unaltered material retained in a subsequent edition remains protected under the original copyright, and copyright applicable to the new material does not extend the duration of copyright in the old material.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that publishers use standard language to designate specific editions: 2nd edition, 3rd edition, 4th edition, and so on.45 If the new edition is simply printed in a different format, eg, in paperback or in a different language through a licensing agreement, the status can be designated as “Paperback edition 2005” or “French-language edition” (see 3.12.7, References, References to Print Books, Edition Number).

Some publishers list the various dates of revisions on the copyright page as a record of publishing history. The publishing history follows the copyright notice. For example, this manual has had 9 previous editions:

  1. 2007, AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 10th ed (Iverson et al)

  2. 1998, American Medical Association Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 9th ed (Iverson et al)

  3. 1989, American Medical Association Manual of Style, 8th ed (Iverson et al)

  4. 1981, Manual for Authors & Editors, 7th ed (Barclay et al)

  5. 1976, Stylebook/Editorial Manual of the AMA, 6th ed (Barclay)

  6. 1971, Stylebook/Editorial Manual of the AMA, 5th ed (Hussey)

  7. 1966, Stylebook and Editorial Manual, 4th ed (Talbott)

  8. 1965, Stylebook and Editorial Manual, 3rd ed (Talbott)

  9. 1963, Stylebook and Editorial Manual, 2nd ed (Talbott)

  10. 1962, Style Book (Talbott)

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