Copyright – how long does it last?

07 Apr 2011
Alasdair Taylor

The law of copyright protects creative output.  It is a property right which prevents copying and arises automatically even ‘before the ink is dry on the paper’.  In an age of unlimited electronic access to information and imagery of every kind, the danger of infringing someone’s copyright is ever-present.  However, the law on copyright only protects material for a limited amount of time.  The question is: how long?

Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works

The main legislation on copyright is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998 (CDPA). From the enactment of the CDPA until 1 January 1996, all literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, published or unpublished, enjoyed the economic rights conferred by copyright which lasted for the life of the author plus 50 years.  The 50 years started from the end of the year of the author’s death and the author may be a different person to the owner.

After 1 January 1996, the Duration of Copyright and Rights in Performances Regulations 1995, which implemented the EU Duration Directive, brought the UK in line with the rest of the EU, increasing the period to 70 years post mortem auctoris.  This had the effect of not only extending the life of existing copyright works, but also brought certain out-of-copyright works back into copyright – those in copyright elsewhere in the EU on 1 July 1995.  These are known as “revived” copyrights.

Before the CDPA, literary works enjoyed perpetual copyright for as long as they remained unpublished. These perpetual copyrights which were abolished by the CDPA, and will now expire on 31 December 2039. For works of unknown authorship, the 70 year period runs from the later of the year of first publication (with the original copyright holders permission) or the year of creation (whichever is later).

For works of joint authorship, the 70 year period runs from the year of death of the last surviving author.

There are a few exceptions to the 70 year rule, one of which is to be found in provisions added to the CDPA which give Great Ormond Street Hospital a right forever to a royalty in respect of public performances, commercial publications and broadcasting of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

There are also complexities in the application of the rules to works originating outside the EEA.

There are different rules where the monarch is entitled to the copyright (all works produced by the British government) in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work.  New Crown copyright material that is unpublished has copyright protection for 125 years from the end of the year in which the work was created. Commercially published Crown copyright material has protection for 50 years from the end of the calendar year of publication, assuming that that is during the first 75 years following creation.

Where a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work is computer-generated, the copyright lasts for 50 years from the end of the calendar year it was created as there is no need to attach the work to the lifetime of any particular person.  Care must be taken here, as there is a difference between computer-generated work and computer-aided work.

Entrepreneurial copyrights

Entrepreneurial copyrights are those which, broadly, protect people who invest in creativity e.g. production companies, broadcasters, publishers etc. With regard to films, copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the last of the principal director, author of screenplay, author of dialogue or composer of music specific to the film dies.  If a film does not have any people fitting those descriptions, then the copyright will run for 70 years from the end of the year in which the film is created or, if later, released. For sound recordings copyright lasts for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the sound recording was made if it is never released or 50 years from when the sound recording was released if it is (if it was released with the permission of the copyright holder). The copyright for broadcasts lasts for 50 years from first broadcast. Publisher’s copyright in typographical arrangements last for 25 years from the end of the year of first publication.

Exploited copyright works

If a copyright work is exploited by making articles industrially then the term of copyright it enjoys is limited to 25 years from the end of the 1st year in which the articles are marketed. Industrial exploitation means making more than 50 articles. An example of an exploited copyright might be that which subsists in a wallpaper design or an Ikea chair. There are exceptions to the 25 year rule, including sculptures, wall plaques, medals, and printed matter which is primarily of a literary or artistic character.  So, for example, just because a painting is printed thousands of times on a tea towel, it’s copyright will not expire in 25 years.

Moral rights

The rights of paternity, integrity and artists’ resale rights subsist as long as copyright in the works in question. The right to prevent false attributions subsists until 20 years after the author’s or director’s death.

This article was researched and written by Evan Ray.

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