How Long Do Copyrights Last and What Are Joint Works?

Zachary W. Lombardo, Esq.

Part 3 of a series on U.S. Copyright Law

A copyright is a form of intellectual property. For more on the basics, see Part 1, “What is copyright? And what can I copyright?”, and Part 2, “What are the Copyright Rights? And Do I Need to Register my Copyright?”


A copyright, unlike more durable forms of property such as real estate, does not exist indefinitely. Generally, a copyright lasts the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. 17 U.S.C. § 302, available HERE.

If a copyright, however, was created as a work for hire, the duration is not keyed to anyone’ life. Instead, it is the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. 17 U.S.C. § 302, available HERE.

The above 2 rules apply to works created after January 1, 1978. The answer is different for works created before January 1, 1978. Refer to the Copyright Office’s Circular regarding pre-1978 works HERE.

For comparison, in other countries, copyright duration can be as short as life plus 0 years in Eritrea, and as long as life plus 100 years in Mexico.

After a copyright expires, the work goes into the public domain. When this happens, the copyright rights, discussed in part 2, “What are the Copyright Rights? And Do I Need to Register my Copyright?”, no longer apply and anyone can use the work in any way he, she, or it sees fit.

Due to a 20-year extension to copyright duration in the 1990s, the next series of works to enter the public domain will do so on January 1, 2019. These works will be from 1923. Among the class of works entering the public domain is Felix Salten’s “Bambi”.

An extensive resource for public domain books is Project Gutenberg, accessible HERE.

Because a copyright’s duration can be tied to the author’s life, even if the copyright is transferred to someone else, so to determine how long a copyright lasts, it first must be determined who the author is.


Each person that contributes to the creation of the copyrightable work, with the intention that his or her contribution be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole, is an author. 17 U.S.C. § 101, available HERE. A work with more than one author can exist and is referred to as a “joint work”.

By default, each author owns a proportional share of the whole. For example, if two song writers work together to write a song, but one songwriter only writes the lyrics, and the other writes the music, the two songwriters will be considered to each own a half of the completed song. This means that each will own half of the lyrics and half of the music despite each’s individual contribution. As co-owners of the copyright, each co-owner has a proportional share of the rights discussed in Part 2, “What are the Copyright Rights? And Do I Need to Register my Copyright?”

Determining the duration of a copyright and who the authors of a work are is fact dependent. To learn more about who the authors of a work are and how long a copyright lasts, you should reach out to a knowledgeable and experienced intellectual property lawyer.

Zachary W. Lombardo, Esq. at Woodward, Pires & Lombardo has experience in copyright law matters. If you find yourself needing assistance in this area, please contact a lawyer knowledgeable in copyright law to discuss your matter.