Copyright Termination Rights

Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act provides a path for authors/creators to terminate any contract after 35 years. Back in the late 1970’s, Congress put this in place to protect young artists who signed away future best sellers or other creative work for little or nothing. It’s a provision with a 35 year fuse.

Called “termination rights,” the law reverts rights back to the author, meaning that works published in 1978 could soon (as early as 2013) leave their publishers, or new contracts forced to be negotiated. Congress passed the copyright law in 1976, specifying that it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 1978, meaning that the earliest any recording or other creative work can be reclaimed is Jan. 1, 2013. But artists must file termination notices before the date they want to recoup their work, and once work qualifies for termination, its authors have five years in which to file a claim; if they fail to act in that time, their right to reclaim the work lapses.

Section 203 termination rights are not as simple as they appear. To repeat, Section 203 provides that authors have a five-year period in which to exercise the right, but must also provide advance notice at least two years but no more than 10 years before the date of termination. And any case exercising the right — if the publisher fights it — is unlikely to be clear cut.

For sophisticated creators, this provision has been on the radar for a long time. The New York Times reported in 2011 that

“Bob Dylan has already filed to regain some of his compositions, as have other rock, pop and country performers like Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits and Charlie Daniels, according to records on file at the United States Copyright Office.”

And yes, it applies to all works of authorship, whether musical compositions, books, or other works of authorship. The law gives leverage to creators, but most publishers (whether print or music) are not keen on just kicking back their rights.

For more information about this or any trademark or IP issues, please contact Fred Frawley (