Yesterday, on Harper Lee’s 88th birthday, she thrilled bibliophiles by announcing that “To Kill a Mockingbird” would be available for digital download on July 8th of this year.
A question came my way by a friend who was startled that this book, as a “modern classic”, was still protected by copyright. After responding quickly on Facebook, I realized this was a great moment to talk about copyright duration for older works!
Under the Copyright Act of 1976, the duration for works created after 1978 became the life of the author plus 70 years. Easy enough math, right?
The harder math comes with books like Harper Lee’s, which was published well before the act standardized US Copyright with international law.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, making it eligible for the 28 year term of copyright under 17 U.S.C. 304(a)(1). This copyright was then renewed in 1998, for an additional 67 year term under 17 U.S.C. 304(a)2), making the registered copyright last through 2055.
Interestingly enough, although this work would qualify under the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (sometimes pejoratively described as the “Mickey Mouse Copyright Extension Act”), the timeline remains the same. Under 17 U.S.C. 304(b), the copyright would last for 95 years from the date copyright was originally secured. Or in this case, 95 years from 1960, which again reaches 2055. For quicker math, 28 (first term) + 67 (extended term) = 95.
This situation was further complicated by the author suing her former literary agent last year to regain control of the copyright for the work, which is generally covered by 17 U.S.C. 304(c).
With thanks to Harper Lee for readying her fabulous book for digital release, to HarperCollins for publishing it in the States, and to everyone everywhere for covering the story yesterday.