When does the copyright to the James Bond novels expire and what does it mean for the movie franchise?

An author whose novel is first published in, say, the United Kingdom doesn`t need to reapply for copyright when his book is published in (for example) the United States. Copyright is transferable and extends to all Berne Convention signatory countries.

However, copyright is jurisdictional. The British writer only has the same rights in the United States that American writers have, not what he has in the UK (unless his home country provides a shorter term). Any copyright breach that occurs in the United States has to be redressed through American jurisprudence (the justice system and its laws), not the United Kingdom`s – and vice versa.

This creates potential jurisdictional conflict. Not all countries have consistent copyright laws. The duration of copyright depends on the country, and not the author`s nationality or the country where the book was first published.

Copyright can also be relative. Section 9.(2) of the Canadian Copyright Act both state that authors who are nationals of any country that grants a term of protection shorter than that mentioned in subsection (1) are not entitled to claim a longer term of protection in Canada. Article 7 of the Berne Convention concurs, therefore presumably both the UK and the United States make the same provision. For that reason, copyright on Raymond Benson`s Bond novels may only last 50 years in the UK after his death, and not the customary 70.

This provision also makes it difficult to say exactly when the Bond films enter the public domain. It`s not clear if the Bond films are British, American, or Swiss (copyright is held by Danjaq SA).

I believe that most countries, including the three below, extend copyright through to the end of the particular year when it expires. If copyright lasts for ten years after an author`s death, and the author dies August 12, 1964, copyright would expire January 1st, 1975, not August 13th, 1974.

In United States, all books published before January 1st, 1989 are protected for 75 years from publication. Until June 1992, copyright had to be renewed before 28 years had elapsed or the work would enter the public domain. Once renewed, copyright was extended another 47 years (some US editions of the Bond novels carry a copyright renewed notice), after which time it would enter the public domain. In June 1992, this provision was eliminated and copyright was renewed automatically. Books published on or after January 1st, 1989 are protected for 50 years after the author`s death. The novel Casino Royale enters the public domain on January 1st, 2030 (since the US edition was published in 1954, not 1953). Works done for hire may be protected for 75 years after publication. However, if the strict definition in the Canadian copyright act is anything to go by, this would at most only encompass the novelizations. Copyright lasts 75 years on Motion Pictures. The film Dr No enters the public domain on January 1st, 2038 (since it was released in 1963, not 1962).

In the UK, the 1956 copyright act either gave or reaffirmed copyright protection for up to 50 years after the author`s death. In 1995, this period was extended to 70 years (effective January 1996) to bring it in line with Germany`s copyright laws; both countries belong to the EU. Books that had fallen into the public domain regained their copyright status. However, the British courts held that any “public domain” editions published in the interim or about to be published could continue to exist. (The James Joyce estate had brought an action against a publisher that had prepared a “reader`s version” of Ulysses. The court dismissed the action.) Copyright on the Bond novels published during Fleming`s lifetime expires on January 1st, 2035.

According to one non-legal source (Whitaker`s 1998 Almanac), Motion Pictures are protected for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author: i.e. director, screenwriter or composer. This makes no sense. Cable programs, TV broadcasts, and sound recordings are protected for 50 years after the initial performance. In the interests of consistency, and to avoid inevitable litigation, Motion Pictures should fall into this category. If they did, the first Bond film Dr No would expire on January 1st, 2013; otherwise, no answer can be given. (Consider how this might be exploited in the McClory-EON battle if, on January 1st, 2016, the matter still hasn`t been settled.)

In Canada, copyright protection lasts for 50 years after the author`s death. Copyright is determined by author, not by corporation. Copyright on Fleming`s novels published during his lifetime expires on January 1st, 2015. For posthumous works, copyright expires 50 years after publication. The last of his titles, The Property Of A Lady, enters the public domain on January 1st, 2018 (though the short story is copyright 1963, it wasn`t published until 1967).

Oddly, the Canadian Copyright Act doesn`t say when copyright expires on Motion Pictures. As of 1995, this issue had not been contested in the Canadian courts. Some argue whether the producer or the director is the film`s true author. Such debate is pointless and unnecessary. A careful reading of the Act indicates that the period is 50 years. “In those cases where it is impossible to determine who the author [is], the work will be protected for 50 years from the date of publication” (The 1991 Annotated Copyright Act, Carswell Press, Section 6: II General Principles.) The Act also specifies the same duration if work`s author is unknown. Since there is no true author of a Motion Picture – at least not in the legal sense – common sense should prevail. Dr No, assuming that it was released in Canada in 1963, enters the public domain on January 1st, 2014. Failing that, it would make more sense, as Canada shares borders with the United States, to adopt their rules; American companies distribute most films in Canada. It would be awkward for films to still have copyright protection in Canada, yet be in the American public domain.

Obviously, EON – never mind Glidrose – has a vested interest in ensuring that the books retain copyright protection. If copyright expired on any of the novels, theoretically, people might not only be allowed to film these particular novels, but they might also be allowed to write their own James Bond novels/stories, which could also be filmed. However, these novels and films could not be released or distributed in countries where the novels are still copyright protected. Nor can they refer to any Bond novel or film that is still copyright protected in that particular country.

Copyright partially expires on the James Bond saga in:

US January 1st, 2030
UK January 1st, 2035
CAN January 1st, 2014, failing that, January 1st, 2015

If this information is correct, and the law isn`t changed, it seems unlikely that the the James Bond series (books and films) will outlive the next 15 to 32 years.

Leave a Reply