A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Billboard Magazine about the Copyright Office amending the rules regarding termination of assignments of copyright. The editor wisely omitted the last sentence where I mused about whether the Copyright Office would ever take a stand on the issue of artists attempting to terminate their assignments of sound recording copyrights.
Now the New York Times has addressed the issue in an August 15 article “Record Industry Braces for Artist Battles Over Song Rights”. The article is a great primer on this complex and controversial matter. While it is clear that one of the purposes of the Copyright Act of 1976 was to give songwriters and other authors the right to recapture their work after 35 years, it is not clear whether or not the same rights apply to recording artists. This is because the termination provision specifically excludes “works made for hire” and nearly every recording contract from the 1970s on refers to sound recordings a “works made for hire”. The problem for the record companies is that the Copyright Act also has a very specific definition of “works made for hire” and sound recordings are not part of that definition. Further most record contracts go to great lengths to state that the artist is an independent contractor and not an employee of the record company, which further damages the work made for hire argument.
The New York Times article also addresses some of the confusing side issues in this debate. For example, how will the law address other “authors” of a sound recording including producers and engineers? How will the law affect artists who sign contracts in other countries subject to different laws (e.g. every major band from England)?
Although there is much discussion and debate on the issue, the battle will properly commence until January 1, 2013 when works created on or after January 1, 1978 become eligible for termination. Things are going to get very interesting. I would urge any recording artist who executed an agreement during the 1970’s to have that contract reviewed by a lawyer asap.