How long does copyright last?

Written by William Miles | January 30, 2022


As IP lawyers, a question we frequently receive is, “how long does copyright last?”. It’s particularly relevant to copyright because, unlike other IP rights (such as registered designs or patents), copyright exists as soon as an original work is created.

And, in the UK, at least, the owner doesn’t need to go through any formal registration process to enjoy copyright protection. The old saying used to be “copyright exists as soon as the ink is dry on the paper”.

How long does protection last for copyright work?

That’s all very interesting, but “how long does copyright last?” I hear you ask. Ok, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer, but it’s important to say that the answer depends on the nature of the copyright work in question.

The majority of copyright works fall within the category of “literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works”. Broadly, definitions for each are as follows:

  • Literary works: text/the written word, including things like software code;
  • Dramatic works: works that contain movement, presentation or delivery with or without music performed in front of an audience;
  • Musical works: music, admittedly an obvious one; and
  • Artistic works: a big category covering graphics, illustrations, photos, sculpture, artwork and works of artistic craftsmanship.

In the case of these works, copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the author dies. It’s a bit morbid, but there we are. In the case of joint authorship, the 70 year period runs from the death of the last known author. Where the work is of unknown authorship, the 70 year period runs from the end of the year in which the work was made or made available to the public.

How does that compare to other intellectual property rights?

The 70 year protection period means copyright is an extremely long-term intellectual property right. For comparison, patents expire indefinitely after 20 years, and registered designs have a maximum term of protection of 25 years. The only rights that beat copyright in their longevity are trade marks. And no one can beat trade marks because these are, in theory, perpetual monopoly rights. I say “in theory” because a trademark has to be renewed every ten years, and it can be cancelled and removed from the register if it’s no longer in use (after an initial 5-year grace period).

So, copyright has three distinct benefits:

  1. Long-term protection
  2. Free to own because it doesn’t require registration
  3. Protects a broad range of works

There are some downsides, though. The protection offered against copyright infringement is very narrow, and there are frequent disputes about ownership. However, if you would like some advice on protecting or monetising your copyright work, why not book a free consultation with one of our experts?

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