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?


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.

  • 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
  • @Ruffle. The duration of the copyright is not a function of the life span of the first owner of a copyright (which can be a non-natural person). Instead, in U.K. law under Section 12, it is a function of the life span of the author: "(2)Copyright expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies, subject as follows. (3)If the work is of unknown authorship, copyright expires ." . . . So, Section 9 and not Section 11 is relevant to determining copyright duration. – ohwilleke Oct 21 '17 at 19:58
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    So that gives software companies a reason to prefer younger developers :-( – gnasher729 Oct 21 '17 at 20:45
  • Thanks, @ohwilleke . I will accept your answer. I've taken the liberty of editing it to put the core point first though. – user11566 Oct 21 '17 at 22:04
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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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