Music Copyrights: When Forever Isn’t Actually Forever

copyright[UPDATED] Most songwriters and artists negotiated their original deals for songs before they truly knew what their work was worth – and many now have a chance to recapture the rights to their own music, but don’t realize it.  In this piece, Sound Royalties CEO and Founder Alex Heiche describes how songwriters and artists can finally reclaim their music copyrights and/or renegotiate the worth of these works. 

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By Sound Royalties CEO and Founder Alex Heiche

Sometimes forever isn’t literally forever. Did you know that’s the case for your music copyrights?

In fact, when a songwriter creates a composition or an artist records a track, forever might actually only be about 35 years.

This issue has been brought into the spotlight recently by big names such as Sir Paul McCartney and the Village People’s Victor Willis, but unfortunately many music professionals still don’t understand how it works or applies to them.

It all begins in your early days, when it’s typical to transfer rights to music publishers and record labels in exchange for upfront money and a promise that the entity will market and distribute your masterpiece to the world. 

Since your work is new, it’s inherently hard to know its true value.  Songwriters typically are not in a strong position to make hefty demands from a publisher or label at that point.  

Thankfully, in 1976, Congress recognized this dilemma and established an opportunity for music professionals to get a “second bite of the apple.”

So now, at 35-40 years after release or publication, there is a window of opportunity for songwriters and artists to regain ownership of their copyrights and negotiate new licenses. During this five year period, you can either re-grant your copyright to the same entity for a better deal or recapture the ownership and license it directly to yourself.

Unfortunately, many creators whose works from the late 70s and 80s are coming up for legal recapture unknowingly still believe that they already signed away their rights forever, so its critically important to spread the word about this opportunity and the required steps. 

First off, the right to terminate the original transfer isn’t automatic, doesn’t apply in all instances, and there is a limited window of time when you can take this action. And while the law was crafted in 1976, it didn’t take effect until 1978, so it applies only to grants executed after January 1, 1978. It also applies to any type of transfer, including assignments a writer or artist may have thought was in perpetuity… forever.  

There are also a couple of exceptions to be aware of:

  • Works for Hire – Many labels are successfully fighting the recapture process by focusing on the fact that the recording was created by an employee or contractor. 
  • Grants by Will – Once a grant is made by will, it can’t be recaptured.
  • Grants by persons other than the authors. 
  • Derivative Works (i.e. synchs or sanctioned remixes) – These can still be used after termination, but no more can be created by the original licensee.

Finally, timely and proper notice of the intent to recapture rights must be given during the 5-year eligibility period. A minimum of two years to a maximum of 10 years notice of the date of intention to terminate and recapture rights must be given. 

This means that anyone who released or published a work from roughly July 1992 to July 1979 is in the window to serve a notice of termination.

It’s also important to note that your rights to this option cannot be signed away in advance, so don’t be as concerned about what was in your old contracts from decades ago.

Of course, legal advice is always recommended to ensure the process is navigated accurately and moves quickly. But the plain and simple fact is that this is your legal right, and if filed properly then publishers simply cannot deny these termination letters.

Even if your songs aren’t playing as much as those by The Beatles, The Village People or Stevie Wonder, you should absolutely still consider filing for termination and copyright recapture.  

As a songwriter or artist, you most likely negotiated your original deal well before you truly knew what your work was worth. Now you can find out.

This is your second chance to regain ownership or have the value of your works reevaluated, and negotiate a better deal for yourself. Who knows, by recapturing rights to your music, you even might be able to market your songs and give them new life.

These are literally your rights – go claim them.

sound royalties logoAlex Heiche is the CEO and founder of Sound Royalties, a company working to transform the way that music professionals fund their creativity. 

*Sound Royalties is not a legal advisor and strongly recommends that you speak to a lawyer before making any significant legal decisions.

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