Placebo by Kevin Ames ©1999 Kevin Ames
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Copyright In Focus: How long do copyrights last?

(Editor’s note: Copyright and all things related are as important to creators of images both moving and still. This guest post by intellectual property attorney, Barry Kaplan gives us all some insights into what copyright law is, where it came from and why it’s important to all of us.)

In my last article, I discussed the origins of copyright law. I also gave you some idea of why copyrights can be so important and economically valuable for photographers. In a nutshell, copyright law is the vehicle by which you can set the rules for someone else’s use of your work.

How long does a copyright last?

Because the U.S. Copyright Act has changed several times over the years, there is not a single, uniform answer to this question. For purposes of this article, though, let’s assume that the work was created and “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” on or after January 1, 1978. In that case, from the moment of creation of the work, U.S. copyright law gives that work a term lasting for the author’s life, plus an additional 70 years. See 17 U.S.C. § 302.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Your lifetime, plus another 70 years! That means that the copyright in each and every work you create can be transferred to, or can be established for the benefit of, your significant other, your children and maybe even your grandchildren, by operation of estate law, by will and/or by a trust. For well-known, popular works, this can generate income and wealth across generations, all as a direct result of the continued commercialization of your original work allowed by copyright law.

Special cases

What if you and one or more other authors jointly create a work? (I’ll try to cover some of the legal considerations bound up in the terms, “author” and “jointly create,” in a later article.) In the case of a “joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term of copyright lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.

For “works made for hire” (another term that I’ll unpack in a later article), anonymous works and for pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first “publication” (yes, I’ll unpack this term, too, in a later article) or 120 years from creation — whichever is shorter. In the case of anonymous and/or pseudonymous works, if the author’s identity is later revealed in Copyright Office records, the term becomes the author’s life, plus 70 years.

If you are interested in exploring this topic in greater detail, especially with regard to works created and/or published before January 1, 1978, check out U.S. Copyright Office Circular 15a, which can be found online at: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf

Copyright and the license to show your photos

Licensing and/or sale of your copyright (in whole or in part) in a work is the legal vehicle by which you get paid. If someone else violates (infringes) your copyright in a work, you have the right to bring legal action to redress the violation (infringement). I don’t intend to get too far ahead of myself in this post, but it is worth pointing out that timely registration of your copyright in a work can provide significant benefits, including attorney’s fees and costs. That benefit can sometimes help you secure knowledgeable legal counsel to assist with your copyright enforcement action.

As I said last time, the basics of the copyright system are easy enough for a layperson to understand and use; the costs are (relatively) reasonable and manageable for a large segment of individual creators and small businesses; and the associated, extended bundle of statutory rights provided by registration of copyright can be exceedingly valuable.

And when the difficult questions arise, there are excellent copyright attorneys in nearly every jurisdiction that may be able to guide and/or assist you.

The fine print

The information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship between you and the author. You should always seek the informed advice of an attorney before entering into any legal transaction, when ascertaining your own or another’s legal rights and/or responsibilities and/or when contemplating litigation. Please note that the author may not be licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction; accordingly, nothing contained in this article is intended to be, nor shall be, construed as an offer to provide professional legal services, and especially not to anyone outside of the jurisdiction(s) in which the author is duly licensed to practice.

Photo of Placebo ©1999 Kevin Ames

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