Copyright law can be very complicated, but the principles are fairly straightforward. This is a summary. It may not be relied on. If you have any queries, you will need to take proper legal advice. The governing law currently is in Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
A writer or composer has copyright in their creative production throughout their life and for seventy years after their death. This is so whether or not they put a © notice on it. Copyright expires, though, not on the seventieth anniversary of one’s death but at midnight on December 31st of that year. So, irrespective of their dates of death, from 1st January 2015, the works of everyone who died in 1944 came out of copyright and into the public domain.
There are three exceptions to this, the first of which, in this context, is the most relevant and important . This is that the Crown has perpetual copyright by Royal Prerogative, administered by Cambridge University Press, in the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer.
The second, which is in practice less critical, is that if a work is of unknown authorship, the seventy years is measured from when it was made, unless it was published during that period, in which case the seventy years runs from publication. What this means, is that anything anonymous or classed as ‘trad’ which was published more than seventy years ago, is now safely in the public domain. Besides, an anonymous person can hardly do very much to claim rights are theirs unless they can demonstrate who they are and how they claim to be the author. So the main situation where this is likely to apply is probably where ‘the author’ is a company.
The third is that until 1st January 1996, the period was fifty years. The transitional provisions were controversial and complicated. They had the effect that most, but not all, works affected by the change of date that were out of copyright, went back into it again. It is therefore possible that there may be some works of those who died in 1945 which appear to be in copyright but are not. This will cease to be an issue at the end of 2015.
More than one copyright can exist in the same work. So, where I have added an alto line to a work by Playford, I have copyright in my setting. However, that does not give me copyright in the original. It is not possible that way to acquire a possessory title in somebody else’s work or to anything that is in the public domain. Nor, contrary to some peoples’ belief, does one acquire copyright by finding an old manuscript, doing research on it or even owning it.
There is also a quite separate copyright in the layout/typesetting of published works. For them the copyright period is twenty-five years from publication. There is copyright in the reproduction of a recording for seventy years from first publication.
In addition to copyright, there is also ‘moral right’, which is the right to be identified as author and to restrain distortion or modification of a work that would be prejudicial to his or her ‘honour or reputation’. In the UK, moral right must be expressly asserted but in many jurisdictions it is automatic.
The copyright regime for most countries in the world follows fairly similar principles, the main difference being the various periods. The main exception is the United States whose copyright law is unpredictable and bears little resemblance to that anywhere else.
With very few exceptions now, most countries have signed up to a convention which has the effect that if a work is recognised as under copyright in the country of first publication, it is also protected elsewhere, but under the copyright principles there, not in the place of first publication. In the UK, if a work’s place of first publication was in a country with a shorter period, that period will also apply in the UK in stead of the UK’s period.
If it was first published in a country with a longer period, it will enter the public domain in the UK on the same day as it would have become public domain if first published here.