By: Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about songwriters and artists (and their heirs) reclaiming thei copyrights and striking new deals or self-administering/self-releasing. What many want to know, is who can reclaim copyrights and how?

There are certain provisions in the copyright law where, under certain circumstances, an author or that author’s heirs can reclaim copyrights that have been granted away at some time in the past. It’s a really complicated section of the law, and not all attorneys are well-versed in it, so it is important to make sure whoever you hire really knows the intricacies of filing terminations.

For purposed of this article, I’m going to go over the basics.

There are two main sections of the copyright law that apply to copyright terminations:

  • Section 304c applies to copyrights and grants before January 1, 1978. Termination under this section can be effected between 56 and 61 years after the original date of copyright, and termination may be effected in regards to one author’s share of the work.
  • Section 203 applies to grants made after January 1, 1978, regardless of the original copyright date of the work. Grants falling under this section may be terminated between 35 and 40 years after the grant date. If the grant includes the right of publication for the work, then that five-year period begins either on 35 years after the date of publication, or 40 years after the date of the grant, whichever is earlier.
  • Note that under Section 203, grants signed by more than one author require a majority of those authors or their heirs to terminate the grant. It is not like section 304, where one author’s share can be terminated independently. However, there are exceptions to this rule if separate grants were signed, such was the point at issue in the Victor Willis/ “YMCA” case.

Who can terminate?

  • The author
  • The author’s heirs, if the author is no longer living. (There are only specific people in a specific order of succession that are considered heirs. Again, make sure you have an attorney experienced with terminations advise you.)
  • If the author’s share is being terminated by the author’s heirs, those heirs must make up a majority (at least 50%) of that author’s termination interest.

Some additional points that apply to terminations under both sections:

  • When you want to effect a termination, you actually have to send a notice to the current owner of the copyright in advance of the termination date. This notice must be served not more than ten, but not less than two years before the effective date of termination. If you miss this notice window, you lose your right to terminate.
  • The notice must be recorded with the Copyright Office before the effective date of termination to be valid.
  • Works made for hire or grants by will are not eligible for termination.
  • Termination is a matter of law, so it can be affected regardless of any contract or agreement to the contrary.

Why is the right to terminate important?

Recapturing rights and starting to exploit them again can revive older compositions or catalogs, and help them to start making money again when they’re currently lost and forgotten in the catalogs of large music publishers. Also, this increased exploitation (or an advance in a new deal) would mean more money for the authors or heirs. The decision whether to terminate must be carefully considered based on the catalog at issue as well as the situation of the authors/heirs.

I regularly work with legacy clients and their heirs to determine the best plan for the catalog and filing termination notices, if that is the best choice for the client, so please contact me if I can help you with your catalog.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters. This article does not constitute or create an attorney-client relationship between Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. and you or any other user. The law may vary based on the facts or particular circumstances or the law in your state. You should not rely on, act, or fail to act, upon this information without seeking the professional counsel of an attorney licensed in your state. 

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Erin M. Jacobson is a practicing music attorney, experienced deal negotiator, and seasoned advisor of intellectual property rights. She protects clients ranging from Grammy and Emmy Award winners, independent and legacy artists, songwriters, music publishers, heirs and song catalogues, and other music professionals. Ms. Jacobson handles all types of contracts within the music industry, with an emphasis on music publishing and licensing. In addition, she sits on the Board of Directors for the California Copyright Conference and Association of Independent Music Publishers. Ms. Jacobson is a frequent speaker and author, with articles featured on Forbes.com and in other publications. Ms. Jacobson also owns and operates Indie Artist Resource , the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection, offering high quality contract templates most needed by independent artists and songwriters.