Duration of Copyright Protection

Libraries are often asked about the current duration of copyright or how to determine if a work is in the public domain. In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was signed into law,extending the term of copyright for a the eleventh time in the last 40 years. An extension to the copyright term benefits copyright holders, since it allows them to continue to assert copyright protection of their works.

With the Bono amendment, the terms of copyright have been extended for an additional 20 years:

For works created after January 1, 1978:

  • copyright protection will endure for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years
  • in the case of a joint work, the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author's death
  • for anonymous and psuedonymous works and works made for hire, the term will be 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first

For works created but not published or registered before January 1, 1978:

  • the term endures for the life of the author plus 70 years, but in no case will expire earlier than December 31, 2002
  • if the work is published before December 31, 2002, the term will not expire before December 31, 2047

For pre-1978 works still in their original or renewal term of copyright:

  • the total term is extended to 95 years from the date that copyright was originally secured


Laura Gasaway's Public Domain Chart is a good starting point for trying to figure out what is in the public domain.

Public Domain Charts for Published & Unpublished Works from Cornell Institute for Digital Collections