35-Year Reversion of Copyrights

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any tougher for music companies, it does. A little known fact sitting quietly in the copyright laws will soon allow some artists to retrieve the original copyrights to their works. If you're a recording artist who sold your music to a label or publisher in 1978 or thereafter, you can request reversion of your creative copyrights thirty-five years after you originally sold them if you meet certain criteria.

Winning your copyrights back is not necessarily easy. The change in copyrights was determined in the 1976 Copyright Act, which began enforcement in 1978. The Act allows authors to reclaim their copyright 35 years after the initial release of their work. That means authors from 1978 can file for reversion of copyright for the year 2013 and onward.

But the change in the copyright law left many aspects of the song recording rights unclear. For instance, you can apply for the reversion if you are the author of the creative work. But what defines "author?" In the case of recorded music is the author just the artist, or does it include the producer, and what about the record label? No description of author is clarified in the Copyright Act, so interpretation will be sought in the courts.

Add to that any contractual discrepancies from the originating buyer of the copyright. If you signed a contract with a label or publisher that said your work was legally classified as work for hire, it may well be argued you are not eligible for the 35-year reversion clause. The copyright act does not allow copyright reversions for "work for hire." But Jay Cooper, the head entertainment attorney of Greenberg Traurig argues that Congress did not name sound recordings as one of the work for hire exclusions specifically because they wanted musicians to be able to recapture their copyrights 35 years later.

Then there's the question of timing. To make a reversion possible, the author will need to file for copyright termination within five years prior to the 35-year expiration date, meaning between 2008 and 2013. Otherwise, the reversion is not considered a valid claim.

So how would all these complex rules affect labels and publishers in the long run? If copyrights were returned to artists, it could be immensely damaging to an industry that can't make hit records sell more than a few hundred thousand copies.

Be forewarned. Publishers and labels won't give up without a fight. If they lose the rights to their back catalogue, they will slowly lose footing in their very own business, so expect a nasty legal fight in 2013.

But for artists, the 35-year reversion act is a day in the sun. The Eagles are filing their case now for rights reversion in 2013, and many others will be following suit.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.