How long does copyright last?
Copyright does not last forever. In the UK, and across Europe, copyright in books, plays, music, works of art and films comes to an end 70 years after the author’s death. After that, work that was once protected by copyright enters the public domain.
For example, the British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930, more than 85 years ago. All of Conan Doyle’s published work is now in the public domain, including his stories from The Strand Magazine featuring perhaps the most famous literary detective the world has ever known - Sherlock Holmes. This means his work can be re-used by anyone for free, without having to ask for permission. If you wanted to publish and sell Conan Doyle’s stories, you are free to do so. If you want to make use of his stories in the creation of new, derivative works – such as the lyrics of a song – you are free to do that too. The copyright has expired. The work is in the public domain.
Think of it this way: copyright is like a time capsule. It keeps an author’s work safe and secure for a defined and finite period of time, after which the work becomes free to the world.
Knowing that copyright generally lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years is a useful rule of thumb, although this rule does not apply to all types of copyright work. Copyright in sound recordings and television broadcasts is not calculated with reference to the life of an author. So, the period of protection granted to broadcasts is simply 50 years from the end of the year of first transmission. Similarly, copyright in sound recordings expires 50 years from the end of the year in which the recording was made, unless the recording is published during that 50 year period in which case the copyright will expire 70 years from the end of the year in which it was published.
Moreover, while a work may be in the public domain, the recording of that work may well be in copyright. For example, Mozart’s music is in the public domain and free for everyone to use it, but the recording of his Symphonies 38-41 made by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and released in 2008 are in copyright, and will remain in copyright until 31 December 2078 (that is, 70 years from the end of the year in which they were first published).
It is also important to bear in mind that different rules on the duration of copyright can apply in different countries. So, the fact that a work is out of copyright somewhere else in the world does not mean that it is out of copyright in the UK. For example, the US and the UK have quite different rules on when works enter the public domain. Any work that was first published in the US before 1923 is in the public domain (in the US); but in the UK plenty of work that was first published before 1923 is still in copyright today. For example, the musical composition Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss was first published in 1896 (before 1923), so it is in the public domain in the US. However, Richard Strauss died in 1949, meaning that his work will enter the public domain in the UK only on 1st January 2020. Again: different rules about copyright duration often apply in different countries.