Copyright law - The duration of copyright

Copyright Law fact sheet P-10: Copyright Duration

Issued: 5th July 2004
Last amended: 5 July 2004

National copyright laws stipulate the duration of copyright, and the actual duration will vary between nation states. The content of this fact sheet reflects the provisions of the Berne Convention and should be regarded as a rough guide only.

  1. Typical duration of legal copyright protection:

    Normal protection provided by the Berne Convention is life of the author plus fifty years from death, with the following exceptions:

    • Film, cinematographic work:

      50 years from the making of the work, or if made available to the public within the 50 years, (i.e. by publication or performance), 50 years from the date the author first makes the work available to the public.

    • Anonymous works:

      50 years from the date made available to the public.

    • Artistic works, such as photographs and applied art:

      At least 25 years from creation.

    Duration will always run from January 1st of the year following the event indicated.

    In the case of work created on behalf of a company, the duration is still linked to the individual person that actually created the work, i.e. the duration is linked to the lifespan of the individual creator(s) rather than the company.

    In all cases, individual national laws can, and often will, allow additional protection over and above the terms of the Convention. For example, in the UK most work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. The Convention sets out what authors can realistically expect. There are also exceptions allowed for countries bound by the Rome Act.

  2. What happens when copyright expires?

    When the term of copyright protection has expired, the work falls into the public domain. This means that the work, has effectively become public property and may be used freely.

    It should be stressed that actual duration will vary under national laws, and you should check the laws of individual countries before you attempt to use a work.

  3. Can I claim copyright for a work that has expired?

    No, once a work is in the public domain it is available to all. You cannot stop others using the work and you will have no claim to copyright on the work.

  4. A special note regarding sound recordings

    Sound recordings will have a individual copyright separate to the underlying composition. If the underlying composition is in the public domain, it does not follow that a sound recording is.

    You cannot reproduce a more recent sound recording of a public domain work, though you may create your own sound recording from the public domain composition.

    For more details on this point, please see our fact sheet P-07: Music Copyright.

  5. A notable exception: Peter Pan

    The copyright for JM Barrie’s work Peter Pan, was due to expire in 1987 in the UK, but an amendment to the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act (instigated by Lord Callaghan) was passed to allow the copyright to run indefinitely in the UK. Any royalties are to be paid to the trustees of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, for as long as the hospital exists.

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The use of this fact sheet is covered by the conditions of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works License.

This fact sheet is intended only as an introduction to ideas and concepts only. It should not be treated as a definitive guide, nor should it be considered to cover every area of concern, or be regarded as legal advice.


The above information is based on the current rules under the Berne Convention. The actual duration may be considerably higher under national laws. Under UK copyright law for example, the copyright duration is typically 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies.

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