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Understanding the Basics of Copyright Expiration


Recently a movie was released with the name, “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.” There is also talk of making a horror movie from the “Steamboat Willie” property, featuring Mickey Mouse. How is all of this possible? Aren’t these properties protected by copyright, and in these cases, owned by Disney?

Copyright Expiration

These kinds of movies, and others like it, are the result of the natural expiration of copyright rights. Copyrights can, and do, expire. But the calculation of when they expire is more complex than you may think.

Calculating when a copyright expires, first requires a determination of when the work was originally created. For works created up until 1921, a copyright was good for an initial 28 years, with the option to renew for an additional 28 years, adding up to a total of 56 years of copyright protection. Most of those works’ copyright protection have since expired.

For works created from 1922-1963, the initial period remained at 28 years, but they could be renewed for 67 years after that point, a time period which, if you do the math, extends to the current day.

New Calculations Based on Life and Death

But in the 70s, congress decided to take into account the life of the work’s creator. A creator should have protection throughout his or her lifetime and his or her heirs should, for a reasonable period, be able to profit off of the work that was created.

That’s why copyright for works created after 1978, lasted for the entire life of whomever created the work, plus 70 more years. That means that it can be impossible to tell how long current copyrights last, because, for creators who are still alive, you don’t know when they will pass away.

Works for Hire

But it gets even more complex, because some works are work for hire—that is, works that weren’t created by the copyright owner, but which were created by employees or contractors.

For work for hire copyrighted works, the copyright lasts a flat 95 or 120 years (depending on whether the time is from creation or publication), whichever time period ends up being less time. That of course requires calculation of when a work was first published, something that can often be disputed in court.

Expiration and Public Domain

Once a copyright expires, the work, character or artistic or musical creation is considered to be in the public domain. That means nobody can ever own it, and everybody can use it.

That is, anybody can use the works, individually. As a compilation, those works may still have protection. So, for example, if I write a book analyzing “20 great wedding songs,” and each song is in the public domain, my compilation of the songs can still have its own independent copyright protection.

We understand the complexities of intellectual property laws. Call the West Palm Beach business litigation lawyers at Pike & Lustig today.




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