2017 US Code
Title 17 - Copyrights
Chapter 3 - Duration of Copyright
Sec. 303 - Duration of copyright: Works created but not published or copyrighted before January 1, 1978

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Citation 17 U.S.C. § 303 (2017)
Section Name §303. Duration of copyright: Works created but not published or copyrighted before January 1, 1978
Section Text

(a) Copyright in a work created before January 1, 1978, but not theretofore in the public domain or copyrighted, subsists from January 1, 1978, and endures for the term provided by section 302. In no case, however, shall the term of copyright in such a work expire before December 31, 2002; and, if the work is published on or before December 31, 2002, the term of copyright shall not expire before December 31, 2047.

(b) The distribution before January 1, 1978, of a phonorecord shall not for any purpose constitute a publication of any musical work, dramatic work, or literary work embodied therein.

Source Credit

(Pub. L. 94–553, title I, §101, Oct. 19, 1976, 90 Stat. 2573; Pub. L. 105–80, §11, Nov. 13, 1997, 111 Stat. 1534; Pub. L. 105–298, title I, §102(c), Oct. 27, 1998, 112 Stat. 2827; Pub. L. 111–295, §5(a), Dec. 9, 2010, 124 Stat. 3181.)


Theoretically, at least, the legal impact of section 303 would be far reaching. Under it, every "original work of authorship" fixed in tangible form that is in existence would be given statutory copyright protection as long as the work is not in the public domain in this country. The vast majority of these works consist of private material that no one is interested in protecting or infringing, but section 303 would still have practical effects for a prodigious body of material already in existence.

Looked at another way, however, section 303 would have a genuinely restrictive effect. Its basic purpose is to substitute statutory for common law copyright for everything now protected at common law, and to substitute reasonable time limits for the perpetual protection now available. In general, the substituted time limits are those applicable to works created after the effective date of the law [Jan. 1, 1978]; for example, an unpublished work written in 1945 whose author dies in 1980 would be protected under the statute from the effective date [Jan. 1, 1978] through 2030 (50 years after the author's death).

A special problem under this provision is what to do with works whose ordinary statutory terms will have expired or will be nearing expiration on the effective date [Jan. 1, 1978]. The committee believes that a provision taking away subsisting common law rights and substituting statutory rights for a reasonable period is fully in harmony with the constitutional requirements of due process, but it is necessary to fix a "reasonable period" for this purpose. Section 303 provides that under no circumstances would copyright protection expire before December 31, 2002, and also attempts to encourage publication by providing 25 years more protection (through 2027) if the work were published before the end of 2002.


2010—Subsec. (b). Pub. L. 111–295 substituted "any musical work, dramatic work, or literary work" for "the musical work".

1998—Subsec. (a). Pub. L. 105–298 substituted "December 31, 2047" for "December 31, 2027" in second sentence.

1997—Pub. L. 105–80 designated existing provisions as subsec. (a) and added subsec. (b).

Publication Title United States Code, 2012 Edition, Supplement 5, Title 17 - COPYRIGHTS
Category Bills and Statutes
Collection United States Code
SuDoc Class Number Y 1.2/5:
Contained Within Title 17 - COPYRIGHTS
Sec. 303 - Duration of copyright: Works created but not published or copyrighted before January 1, 1978
Contains section 303
Date 2017
Laws In Effect As Of Date January 12, 2018
Positive Law Yes
Disposition standard
Statutes at Large References 90 Stat. 2573
111 Stat. 1534
112 Stat. 2827
124 Stat. 3181
Public Law References Public Law 94-553, Public Law 105-80, Public Law 105-298, Public Law 111-295
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