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Artists Move to Reclaim Copyrights to Songs

Often times when creating and recording a song, the record label retains the copyright over the song.  In exchange, the artist receives a share of the proceeds from record sales and the benefit of the record companies’ advertising and promotional arms.

What happens to those rights over time?  Are the record labels’ rights infinite time-wise?  Enter The Copyright Act and an important revision in 1976.  Among other things, that revision gave the musicians termination rights that allowed them control of their own works after 35 years.

Now, 35 years later, recording artists are lining up to assert those rights and the reeling record labels are not happy about it.  In an article published yesterday, The New York Times details the back and forth between the record labels and the artists and planned Congressional action to clarify any ambiguities from the 1976 amendment.

It seems pretty clear from the way the law is written, however, that the artists (who have works created at least 35 years ago) can now assert rights to their music and wrestle it away from control of the labels.

Normally, I do not like to cite case law or statutes in this blog and instead make practical observations.  However, here, I think citation to the Copyright Act is helpful:

(3) Termination of the grant may be effected at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant; or, if the grant covers the right of publication of the work, the period begins at the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever term ends earlier.

(4) The termination shall be effected by serving an advance notice in writing, signed by the number and proportion of owners of termination interests required under clauses (1) and (2) of this subsection, or by their duly authorized agents, upon the grantee or the grantee’s successor in title.

(A) The notice shall state the effective date of the termination, which shall fall within the five-year period specified by clause (3) of this subsection, and the notice shall be served not less than two or more than ten years before that date. A copy of the notice shall be recorded in the Copyright Office before the effective date of termination, as a condition to its taking effect.

(B) The notice shall comply, in form, content, and manner of service, with requirements that the Register of Copyrights shall prescribe by regulation.

(5) Termination of the grant may be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, including an agreement to make a will or to make any future grant.

In response, the industry group has made the argument that all of the recordings were made as Works for Hire, meaning that the artists were essentially employees of the record label.

Not surprisingly, the record labels are fighting back in other ways.  When asked about the change to he law that allow termination rights after 35 years, the recording industry’s association asserts (via The New York Times):

By its own terms the statutory language makes clear that the law on termination was simply being restored to its previous state, and that Congress’s action was to have no effect on its interpretation.

The stakes are extremely high.  Congress is planning on stepping in and it will be interesting to see what happens.

Which artist will be the first to bring suit?  What are your thoughts on this?

More on copyrights can be found here:

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