How Long Til Music Copyright Laws Expire?

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Like many laws Congress passes, U.S. copyright laws don’t expire on their own. They must be repealed or superseded by additional legislation passed by Congress. Because of this, copyright protection extends to all musical works once they’re in a fixed form, such as a sound recording or sheet music. These protections grant the song’s creator exclusive rights to the song, though those rights expire when the copyright term expires.

Length of Copyright Terms

Almost all recorded music is protected by copyright laws. How long that protection extends depends upon when the song was released. All music released after March 1, 1989 is protected for the life of the author, plus 70 years. The copyrights on songs made during this era won’t expire until 2049 at the earliest, though the expiration date depends solely upon the lifespan of the author. Songs released before Feb. 15, 1972 are protected by various laws, but all will be public domain by 2067.

Corporate Owned Copyrights

In most cases, copyright law grants copyrights to the creator of the song. An exception is when musicians and songwriter enter into a work-for-hire agreement with a third party such as a music studio. In this case, the third party holds the copyright. Another exception is when the musician or songwriter is employed by a company to write songs and automatically transfer the copyright to their employer. If the work was made under these circumstances, the copyright term extends for the lesser of 95 years after it was published or 120 years after creation. These songs won’t enter the public domain until 2049 at the earliest.

Exlcusive Rights Granted

The holder of a copyright has exclusive rights to use the song as she likes. These rights extend to many areas of the music industry. The copyright holder holds the exclusive right to perform a song live or play its recording, make copies of the song, sell copies of it, and use it in other works such TV or film productions.

The Public Domain

A song only enters the public domain when its copyright term expires. Until then, its owner maintains all rights to distribute, copy and perform the song. While a small number of songs recorded between 1972 and 1989 are in the public domain because their publication didn’t meet copyright standards of the time, most recorded works aren’t in the public domain.

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