A copyright is a legal right granted for a limited time to the creator of an original work held in a fixed form. The creator gains the right to exclude others from copying, performing, selling, displaying or making a derivative version of the protected material. Federal law controls the length of time a copyright will last. The period of copyright for a movie depends on factors such as when the film was created, when it was published, whether there is a single creator or multiple creators, and whether the creators are known or anonymous.
A movie with a single, known creator that was created on or after January 1, 1978 would have copyright protection beginning at its creation and lasting for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years after the creator's death. In the case of a joint work, the term of copyright would end 70 years after the death of the last surviving creator.
Movies created and copyrighted before January 1, 1978 will retain rights under the Copyright Act of 1909 but with some changes afforded by the Copyright Act of 1976. Under the 1909 Act, copyright was secured on the date a work was published or, if unpublished, on the date of registration. Copyright lasted for 28 years and was eligible for copyright renewals. The 1976 Act retained the previous system but allowed for increased renewal terms lasting 47 years. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act increased the renewal terms another 20 years for a total of 67 years. Thus, for works created prior to January 1, 1978, the total number of possible copyright protected years is now 95 years from the original date of copyrighting.
Movies created but not published or formally registered for copyright before January 1, 1978 will be granted a copyright lasting for the same term as those copyrighted after January 1, 1978, or for the life of the creator plus seventy years after his death, but in no situation will the term of copyright expire any earlier than December 31, 2002.
Read More: About Copyright Laws for Movies
An anonymous work, a pseudonymous work or a work made for hire is granted a copyright that lasts for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, and expires on whichever date occurs first.
Christine Varad is a writer and editor specializing in legal topics. She earned a J.D. in law from New England Law and a B.F.A. in design from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.