Terminating copyright transfers

return
“Return”, by Ldavis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Someone in your family write something years ago that was a hit? Copyright transfer termination laws might let you get this old copyright back.  

US copyright laws contain certain author-friendly provisions that allow independent (not working for hire) authors to eventually get their copyrights back.  The underlying idea is to give a second chance to young authors who may have entered into unfavorable copyright assignment (transfer) deals with various publishers.

For example, the 1976 copyright act (17 U.S. Code § 203, effective 1978) states that under certain situations (such as if written notice is given 2-10 years in advance), the rights to previously assigned copyrights can be retrieved by the author (or heirs) during a limited 5 year time window that starts 35 years after the initial assignment or publication.

Although since 1978, there have been other substantial changes to US copyright law (e.g. the “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension act of 1998), this 1976/1978 era termination right still exists.

Indeed the concept of author termination rights predates the 1976/1978 copyright act.  Previous copyright acts, such as the 1909 US copyright act, had independent author termination rights as well.  For example, under the 1909 act (in effect until 1977), copyright terms were 28 years, and the author had the option to renew the copyright one time, for a total of 56 years.  During this first renewal period, under certain situations, the author could also terminate his original copyright assignments at 28 years. But no more.

The 1976/78 copyright act changed the copyright term (for works not made for hire) from 56 years to the author’s lifetime plus 50 years, and later the renewal requirement was also dropped. The 1976/78 copyright act changed the author termination rules for pre-1978 works. These days, for pre-1978 works, under 17 U.S. Code § 304, independent authors (or heirs of independent authors) are now given a five-year window, starting at 56 years, to get their copyrights back.

Sound complicated?  This is the simplified version; the reality is even more complex!  For example, what is a “work for hire?” For non-employees, it is a work that someone has commissioned you to do, and these days this commission agreement must be in writing.  However, in the pre-1978 era, companies would try to incorporate “work for hire” clauses into assignments from even non-commissioned authors. The courts did not always buy this, as per a famous Marvel comics case involving Captain America.  Like to get the rights to this?

These rules are so complex that you almost need a computer program to sort through the various options.  Fortunately, this has been done.  The Authors Alliance, in conjunction with Creative Commons, now offers online software designed to give authors at least a rough idea of the feasibility of terminating their earlier copyright assignments.  This software is available at rightsback.org.