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Perpetual copyright refers to a copyright which does not expire. It is highly uncommon, as the current laws of all countries with copyright statutes set a standard limit on the duration, based either on the date of creation/publication, or on the date of the creator's death. (See List of countries' copyright length.) Exceptions have sometimes been made, however, for unpublished works. Usually, special legislation is required, granting a perpetual copyright to a specific work.
Common law once had a doctrine of copyright where unpublished works were restricted by their authors indefinitely. This has been repudiated in the United States (Wheaton v. Peters) and Britain (Donaldson v. Beckett), where the courts have ruled that copyright is a purely legislative state.
Portugal amended the Copyright Act in 1927, from its previous 50 years modified Copyright term to "perpetual". However, this stipulation was withdrawn in 1966.
The UK Copyright Act 1775 established a type of perpetual copyright under which the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible was allowed to be printed only by the Royal printer and by the printers of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This provision was abolished by the Copyright, Designs and patents Act 1988, but under transitional arrangements (Schedule I, section 13(1)) these printing rights do not fully expire until 2039.
J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up is covered by special legislation establishing that Great Ormond Street Hospital may collect royalties in perpetuity. However, this is not strictly-speaking a perpetual copyright because the hospital does not retain creative control over the work. Note that the provision applies to the play and to performances and adaptations of it, not to the earlier Peter Pan stories in The Little White Bird.
In the United States, perpetual copyright is prohibited by its Constitution, which provides that copyright is "for limited times". However, it does not specify how long that term can be, and it has successively been extended by Congress, retroactively extending the terms of any copyrights still in force. Following the enactment of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, a coalition of plaintiffs led by publisher Eric Eldred argued that this act and a previous extension of the copyright term in the 1970s had created a de facto "perpetual copyright on the installment plan". This argument was rejected by the US Supreme Court in Eldred v. Ashcroft, which held that the term of copyright may be extended by Congress, so long as it is still a limited term at the time of each extension. Commentator Mark Helprin explicitly supports the enactment of perpetual copyright through this method of extensions by Congress.
Pursuant to Section 197 of the Copyright Act, unpublished governmental literary, dramatic and musical works are under perpetual copyright, but once published, they are copyrighted for 70 years following publication.
- ↑ "Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (c. 48, s. 301)". Office of Public Sector Information, United Kingdom. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1988/Ukpga_19880048_en_28.htm.
- ↑ Gysin, Christian; McDermott, Nick (11 January 2008). "Mystery man leaves £20,000 in a brown paper bag at Great Ormond Street Hospital reception". Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=507439.
- ↑ "Eldred v. Ashcroft - Wikisource". http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Eldred_v._Ashcroft.
- ↑ 
- ↑ "Copyright Act (c. 63, s. 197) - Provisions as to Government copyright". The Attorney-General’s Chambers, Singapore. http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/non_version/cgi-bin/cgi_getdata.pl?actno=2006-REVED-63&doctitle=Copyright%20Act%0a&segid=1138345608-006559#1138345608-006621.