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Under British law (s11 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988), the first copyright of a book belongs to its creator, or, if the creator writes it for an employer, his employer (s9). Now his employer does not have to be a natural person; it could be a fictitious legal person, such as a company. If it is, does the copyright expire and if so, when? S12 states that copyright endures until 70 years after the author dies. Does that mean that if a company holds the first copyright then the copyright lasts as long as the company stays in existence, plus 70 years? If so, what is to stop an author avoiding the automatic expiry of copyright 70 years after he dies by incorporating himself as a company for which he does the work of writing? Or perhaps a company that holds the first copyright loses it 70 years after its employee dies?

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Regardless of whether the first copyright holder is the author (always a natural person) or an employer (natural or non-natural), the copyright under British law expires 70 years after the death of the author.

British law makes a distinction between the author of a work and the owner of a copyright that is not present in U.S. copyright law. This gives the author of the work "moral rights" which are absent in U.S. copyright law and also changes the analysis of how long a copyright lasts.

Under Section 9 of the law, the author of the work is always a natural person according to the rules set forth there, and if no natural person can be associated with the work, it is a work of unknown authorship.

Section 11 governs who owns a work, not who its author is, so the fact that a work is made for hire under a corporation does not mean that the author of the work is the corporation. Indeed, by definition, the author of the work cannot be a corporation. If no individual can be associated with a corporate work it is simply a work by an unknown author.

A work by an unknown author enters the public domain 70 years after it is created, or 70 years after publication if it is first published within 70 years after its creation, pursuant to Section 12.

The authorship of a work is fixed under Section 9 at the moment of its creation, so neither the first owner of the copyright (under Section 11) nor an assignment of ownership of the copyright from the author or first copyright owner to someone else (in your scenario where an author transfers ownership of the copyright to a corporation) changes the author of work. Hence, neither the fact that a work is made for hire, nor the fact that the author transfers ownership of the copyright, changes the duration of the copyright.

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  • S11 says that if a work is made by an employee then the first owner of copyright is the employer. This is not a question about assignment of copyright, which can only be made by someone who already owns it; nor is it about moral rights. It is about the duration of copyright when the first owner is a non-natural person. I have removed the words "who is considered to be the author". An author who writes a work for an employer holds moral rights but he does not hold the first copyright. – user11566 Oct 21 '17 at 11:28
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    So that gives software companies a reason to prefer younger developers :-( – gnasher729 Oct 21 '17 at 20:45
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    @gnasher729 - Think of it as a reason to encourage them to care about the health of developers of all ages :-) It's interesting that the creator of a work can be in a position where they don't get anywhere near owning the copyright, not even at the outset, but its duration still depends on how long the creator lives. – user11566 Oct 22 '17 at 10:07
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    @ruffle: Even ex employees, and even after they are retired :-) – gnasher729 Oct 22 '17 at 20:37
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    @jl6 The choice of law analysis is quite a bit more involved and complicated than the duration of a copyright under British law and is really beyond the scope of this question. Choice of law in copyright law largely turns on where you seek to enforce a copyright, not where it was authored. You might have an enforceable copyright in one country but not in another. But, it is further complicated by treaties that modify the bare language of the hundreds of relevant national domestic copyright statutes themselves. – ohwilleke 2 days ago

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