Sometimes copyright law is correct but not fair. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued its ruling in the closely watched copyright case Roger Miller Music, Inc. v. Sony/ATV Publishing last week. The opinion, which I am sure comes as a tremendous disappointment to the Miller family clarifies an important question in copyright law; that is what happens when an author of a pre 1978 copyright dies before the renewal right in the copyright as vested.
The holding in this case is not abstract – it relies on a straightforward reading of 17 USC Sec. 304(a)(2)(B)(i). However the court's opinion does disturb what might have been a long-held belief about the Copyright Act’s application to pre 1978 copyrights and their renewal terms.
The great Roger Miller had a long-term professional relationship with Tree Music, the predecessor to Sony/ATV. Among the songs that are at issue in this case were those registered for copyright in 1964 including "King of the Road" and "Dang Me". The renewal terms for these works commenced January 1, 1993. Miller died on October 25, 1992. The facts of this case show that Sony applied to register the renewal copyrights in 1992 before Miller's death. The aforementioned section of the Copyright Act provides that if an application to register the renewal copyright is filed in the renewal year, the renewal copyright shall vest, upon the beginning of such further term, in any person who is entitled under Paragraph 1(c) to the renewal and extension of the copyright at the time the application is made".
The result, as the court said, is that "Roger Miller was entitled to the renewal copyright because he was living at the time an application for registration was made. Sony was in turn entitled as Miller's assignee and thus took ownership at the time the renewal vested on January 1, 1993.
This is the correct reading of the statute of course and on a purely philosophical level, it appears to be the correct result. However it seems to expose one of the vagaries of the Copyright Act and the commonly held belief that if an author died before the commencement of the renewal term, the rights went to his heirs automatically. The entire concept of the renewal term, which existed from the time of the Statute of Anne until the Copyright Act of 1976, was intended to give authors the proverbial "second bite at the apple" and to correct deals made when the author had an uneven bargaining position. The fact that publishers began to abuse this system by requiring authors to assign both the initial term and the renewal term of the copyright appears to have been an un intended consequence with was only remedied by the 1976's Act introduction of the 35 year termination of assignment provision and the introduction of the unitary term of copyright. However for authors who assigned works up to the end of 1977 the bizarre operation of the whole renewal concept remains murky and unfortunate. It seems unforgiving to require the operation of a renewal term to depend on something like the author's time of death and to have even that trumped by a publisher filing an application for renewal just seems inequitable.