Copyright protection starts as soon as a work is created. Once copyright has expired, anyone can use or copy the work. The duration of copyright is dependent on a number of factors including – the type of work in question, whether the work is published or unpublished, whether the creator is known or unknown, and whether transitional arrangements from previous copyright legislation apply.
However, in general terms the list below is a useful starting point.
- Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works: the lifetime of the author plus a period of 70 years from the end of the year in which the author died
- Computer generated works: 50 years from the end of the year in which the work was made. A work is deemed to be computer generated where there is 'no human author'
- Video recordings (films): Copyright expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the death occurs of the last to die of the following persons—
(a) The principal director
(b) The author of the screenplay
(c) The author of the dialogue
(d) The composer of music specially created for and used in the film.
Where the identity of such persons is unknown copyright expires at the end of 70 years from the end of the year in which the film was made, or, if during that period the film is made available to the public, 70 years from the end of the year in which it is first made available.
If there is no person falling within the categories above then copyright expires at the end of 50 years from the end of the year in which the film was made.
- Sound recordings: 50 years from the end of the year in which it was made, or, if published or made available to the public during this time, 70 years from the end of the year in which it is first published or made available to the public
- Broadcasts: 50 years from the end of the year the broadcast was made
- Typographical arrangement of published editions: 25 years from the end of the year of first publication.
Where there are joint authors the copyright term is calculated by reference to the last surviving author.
In relation to sound recordings the term of copyright was extended to that specified above as of 1 November 2013. In relation to other works the above terms of protection were introduced or confirmed on 1 January 1996 when copyright terms throughout the EEA were harmonised. They apply to many works created before that date.
Works that were still in copyright on 31 December 1995 had copyright terms extended where the new rules on copyright terms gave a longer term. The term of protection is particularly complicated for photographs taken before 1 January 1996.
A flow chart which may be helpful in clarifying the duration of copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical work or artistic work is available on the British Library website. It is reproduced there with permission from Padfield (2004) Copyright for Archivists and Users of Archives, 2nd Edition, Facet Publishing.
Further reading on how long copyright lasts is available on the Intellectual Property Office website.