Copyright Compendium

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616.2 The Author’s Year of Death

 

616.2 The Author’s Year of Death

 

When completing an application to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, the applicant will be asked if the author of the work is deceased. The applicant should provide a year of death if the work was created by a natural person who is deceased as of the date that the application is filed. If the work was created by two or more authors, the applicant should provide a year of death for each individual who is deceased. 17 U.S.C. § 409 (2). The author’s year of death is required because the term of copyright for certain unpublished works created before 1978 and for all works created after 1978 is based on the year that the author died (unless the work is a work made for hire, an anonymous work, or a pseudonymous work). 17 U.S.C. §§ 302 (A), (B); 303 (A).

 

As a general rule, the registration specialist will not question a year of death unless it is obviously wrong (e.g., a year of death occurring before the year that the work was created).

 

If the applicant fails to provide a year of death in the application and if the information in the deposit copy(ies) or elsewhere in the registration materials indicate that the author may be deceased, the registration specialist may communicate with the applicant if that information could be used to determine the term of copyright.

 

Examples:

 

• An application is submitted for a photograph. Jane Freeman is named as the author and The Estate of Jane Freeman is named as the copyright claimant. Because the author appears to be deceased, the registration specialist will ask the applicant to provide the author’s year of death.

 

• An application for an autobiography titled Out of Australia names Georgette Firth as the author and states that the work was published in 2013. A statement on the deposit copies indicates that the author died in 2009. The registration specialist may communicate with the applicant to request the author’s year of death.

 

• An application is submitted for a book of cartoons featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and other characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip. The application names Charles Schulz as the author of the work and states that the work was published in 2013. The registration specialist is aware that Mr. Schulz is deceased.

Therefore, he or she will communicate with the applicant to request the author’s year of death.

 

Applicants are strongly encouraged to provide the author’s year of death if the work was created by a human being and if the work is being registered as an anonymous or pseudonymous work. The Office will accept an application if the applicant fails to provide this information, because the term of copyright for an anonymous or pseudonymous work may be calculated based on the year the work was created or the year the work was published. 17 U.S.C. § 302 (C). Providing the author’s year of death is useful, because if the author’s real name is revealed in records maintained by the Office, the term of copyright will be calculated based on the year of the author’s death, rather than the year of creation or publication. Id.; see also, H.R. REP. NO. 94-1476, at 137 (1976), reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5659, 5753.

 

By contrast, the applicant should not provide the author’s year of death if the work is being registered as a work made for hire. The year of death is not required in this situation, because the term of copyright for a work made for hire is based on the year the work was created or the year the work was published.

 

For a definition and discussion of anonymous works and pseudonymous works, see Sections 615.1 and 615.2. For a definition and discussion of works made for hire, see Chapter 500, Section 506.