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copyright act

Terminating Ownership Rights: The Past, Present, and Future of an Artist’s Right to Terminate Record Companies’ Ownership

Starting on January 1, 2013, Section 203 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 became a tool for songwriters and musicians to recapture control of their work that was registered with the United States Copyright Office on or after January 1, 1978. Who are they recapturing control from? Record companies. Songwriters own the copyrights in their work, but in making a deal with a record company to publish and promote the work, writers transfer those rights or license the work (only granting certain rights) to the company. Section 203 came into effect in 1977 and specifically concerns music created after 1978. (Music created prior to 1978 is governed by Section 304 of the Copyright Act.) Due to the limitations of Section 203, January 1, 2013, was the first opportunity for artists to terminate ownership of their songs and/or recordings from the record companies that previously owned them. Putting that into perspective, in 2017, artists that created the major hits of the 80’s (think AC/DC, Michael Jackson, and Journey) can file a notice of termination with record labels that were previously granted ownership rights at the time the music was created in an attempt to regain all control of their work. Issues with termination rights have caused quite the battle between record companies and musicians both publicly and privately. Those battles can become more complicated in cases with multiple writers, vague copyright agreements, and the death of musicians. As artists seek to exercise their termination rights, it will be interesting to see if and how the music industry will change.