1

Consider the following two situations:

  • An author of a book dies the 1st of January of 2000, in London, at 2:05 AM, GMT. Yet, from the perspective of Washington, the author died the 31st of December of 1999, at 22:05 PM, EST.

  • An author of a book dies the 1st of January of 2000, in Washington, at 2:05 AM, EST. Yet, from the perspective of San Francisco, the author died the 31st of December of 1999, at 23:05 PM, PDT.

In these two cases, when will the copyright of the book expire? Both the US and the UK give post-mortem 70 years of copyright protection to authors' material. Does the answer depend on where the book was published?

Note: this question is particularly relevant in the context of copyright defined in terms of "end of calendar year". This seems to be the issue in the definition of copyright protection length. For instance, see page 3 of this document for the US, and the Notes at the end of this page.

2

Copyright under the Berne Convention relies on the concept of "country of origin". This is the country where the work was first published or, for simultaneous (i.e. within 30 days) publishing the country that gives the shortest copyright term. While the country of origin may be disputed, particularly for works first published on the internet, every work has one, even if a court may need to decide which it is.

Therefore the relevant time of death is the one in the country of origin.

For your UK/USA example, the country of origin if the works had been published simultaneously is the UK because, based on the time of death, it has the shortest copyright term: one year shorter than the USA

For a country entirely within one time zone, like the UK, this is straightforward. For countries that span multiple time zones, this will depend on the local law regarding time.

For example, the Australian Acts Interpretation Act 1901 says:

ACTS INTERPRETATION ACT 1901 - SECT 37

Expressions of time

Where in an Act any reference to time occurs, such time shall, unless it is otherwise specifically stated, be deemed in each State or part of the Commonwealth to mean the legal time in that State or part of the Commonwealth.

At face value, as applied to the Copyright Act 1968 for an Australian work, this could mean that the work would have a years further protection in Western Australia than in New South Wales. However, such an interpretation would be unconstitutional as Commonwealth law must apply equally in each state and territory of the Commonwealth.

When such a case comes up, the judge would need to hear the evidence and make a decision. We cannot speculate what that decision will be but some arguable possibilities include:

  • if the author died in Australia, the date in the place where they died
  • the date on their death certificate, being the official date
  • the date in the specific place where the work was created
  • the date of their death in Canberra, being the national capital.
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  • Thanks. It seems implicit in your answer that, in effect, copyright protection is calculated on a "end of calendar" basis. Can you be more explicit on this please? – abracadabra Mar 19 '17 at 10:24
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The answer is almost surely exactly 75 years from the exact moment of the author's death, by whatever designation that is given in different parts of the world, although it would be a rare case indeed where this was material.

The answer does not depend on where the work was published so long as that country is governed by U.S. or U.K. copyright law or the law of another country with the same statutory copyright duration at the time of the alleged infringement.

An author of a book dies the 1st of January of 2000, in London, at 2:05 AM, GMT. Yet, from the perspective of Washington, the author died the 31st of December of 1999, at 22:05 PM, EST.

The copyright expires January 1, 2075 at 2:05 AM, GMT which is exactly the same as December 31, 2074 at 22:04 PM, EST, which is exactly the same time everywhere in the world.

An author of a book dies the 1st of January of 2000, in Washington, at 2:05 AM, EST. Yet, from the perspective of San Francisco, the author died the 31st of December of 1999, at 23:05 PM, PDT.

The copyright expires on January 1, 2075 at 2:05 AM, EST and on December 31, 2074 at 23:05 PM, PDT, which just happen to be exactly the same moment in time everywhere in the world.

If an infringing act happened before this moment, then the moment at which the infringement happened would determine that date in the jurisdiction where a lawsuit would be brought that the statute of limitations would start running. Assuming for the sake of argument that the statute of limitations is 3 years in the jurisdiction in which you are suing in both 2074 and 2075, the lawsuit arising from the infringement would have to be brought by the last moment allowed for filing lawsuits on the day that is the third anniversary of the date upon which the infringement occurred in the jurisdiction where you decided to bring the lawsuit.

This said, the answer is immaterial first, because damages would be trivial for an infringement lasting only a few hours or minutes, and second, because it is highly unlikely that copyright will be the same in 2075 CE as it is today.

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  • 2
    I think you are not right. It seems copyrights are calculated based on end of calendar year. Quote from US gov (page 3): "The 1976 Copyright Act provides that all terms of copyright will run through the end of the calendar year in which they expire." As such, the year is relevant. Which might mean the copyright expiration differences will not be for a few hours, but for an entire year! – abracadabra Mar 18 '17 at 9:00
  • Fair point, but I'm not sure that there is any case law governing this issue that is recent enough to rely upon (also the U.S. law is not 75 years post-mortem according to the publication that you cite). Not much has entered the public domain since the 1920s and very few cases involve such boundary pushing facts. – ohwilleke Mar 18 '17 at 9:08
  • I see that the issue is rare and maybe irrelevant, but theoretically, I think it's relevant if one wants to understand better about copyrights. – abracadabra Mar 18 '17 at 9:10

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