A copyright term is the amount of time that an original creative work is protected by copyright law. This protection means that the work may not be copied or used without permission of the creator, although there are exceptions that allow limited use of copyrighted material. The amount of time this protection lasts can vary depending on when the work was created, whether it was published, and other conditions. It also varies in different countries. When the term expires, the work is considered to be in public domain, i.e., available to everyone, although recent extensions of copyright terms have delayed that from happening in certain instances.
When a person devises an original creative work, also called intellectual property, it may be in general protected automatically by copyright. This protection means that it is illegal for any other person or entity to copy, display, perform, or use the material without permission of the creator. There are some exceptions, including using portions of the work for educational purposes or for short published quotes. Some examples of the kind of items that are protected by copyright include poems, books, songs, software, plays, art such as paintings or sculpture, choreography, and movies.
The length of copyright term depends on several factors. In the U.S., for example, copyright is automatic upon creation of the work; registration of the copyright with the Library of Congress is not required but it is recommended. The length of the copyright term is usually the lifetime of the creator or creators plus 70 years for work created on or after January 1, 1978 and for unpublished creations before that date. For work that is anonymous or "made for hire," the protection is valid for the shorter of 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation.
For published work created prior to 1978, the copyright term varies but it usually extends to 95 years after the date of publication. At one time, the copyright term was 28 years followed by an additional 28 year renewal. A series of amendments culminated in a law called the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) which brought the total term to 95 years. When the copyright term expires, the material is considered to be in the public domain which this means that anyone has a right to copy or use the work without permission.
Copyright terms vary in different countries and are not always legally enforceable. Many countries will honor the copyright terms of work created in other nations, but there are exceptions. The Berne Convention is an international agreement that requires participating nations to extend copyright protection to any work that is used, published, displayed, or performed in their country no matter where it was created. It also sets minimum standards for copyright terms, although nations are free to offer longer terms if they wish. These minimums are set at 25 years for photographs, 50 years from first showing or creation for video such as movies, and 50 years after the death of the creator for everything else.