Did you know that if you transfer your copyright to someone, it may be possible to get it back under your control, at least eventually?
The other day, I read a post from Variety entitled Getting Your Grooves Back: Understanding Copyright Termination. This article makes a great point about how people often don’t know about or forget about powerful right authors have under copyright: the right to terminate licenses and transfers. Unfortunately, however, it is a bit thin on details, and is perhaps not as useful as it could be. So I’m here today to provide a bit more information on how copyright law allows you to end transfers and licenses of your rights after enough time has passed.
There are two sections of copyright law that address the termination of copyright transfers and licenses. First is 17 U.S.C. § 203. This section concerns copyright transfers or licenses of works that have been created since January 1, 1978. Under this section, you can take back your copyright after 35 years, but you have to follow a specific procedure to do so. If you don’t, you will miss your limited opportunity. The law holds that you must give notice to the owner of the transfer or license during a time frame that starts 10 years before when you want to terminate the transfer and ends 2 years before the termination. The termination itself can only take place during a 5 year window, starting 35 years after you made the transfer.
So, how does this work? Well, let’s say that you wrote a song, transferred your copyright to it in 2000, and you have now decided you want to take your copyright back. In this situation, your termination window starts in 2035 and ends in 2040, and you can end the transfer at any point between those dates. Then, to actually do this, you need to send notice to the transferee during a period that starts in 2025 and ends in 2033. Get it?
Then there are §§ 304(c) and (d), that do basically the same thing for transfers of renewal rights that happened before 1978. To provide some context, before the current law took effect in 1978, copyrights had to be renewed with the Copyright Office after a number of years. If they wanted to, copyright holders could transfer that renewal interest to another person. These sections allow people to terminate renewal transfers that were made before 1978. Section 304(c) allows creators to take their rights back from the holder of the renewal 56 years after the transfer. As before, you must give notice to the holder of the renewal rights between 2 and 10 years before you want to terminate the transfer. Section 304(d) — which exists because Congress extended the duration of copyright in 1998 — applies to works in their renewal period in 1998 but whose termination window had already expired. This provides for termination of the grant in a 5 years window 76 years after the transfer date. So, under these two sections, if you transferred your renewal in 1970, then your notice window opens in 2016 and ends in 2029; your termination window begins in 2026 and ends in 2031. Get it?
If you don’t get it, it’s ok; it’s confusing. Fortunately, Creative Commons has created a little tool that can help you make sense of this.
So why do I think this matters? Why is this worthy of this blog post? Well, the Variety article correctly raises this as a significant power of creators that doesn’t get enough attention. It seems like it’s pretty easy to for creators to find themselves in situations where they transfer their rights under copyright and later regret those decisions. Because of these provisions of copyright law, all hope is not lost. Sure, you need to wait 35 years to get your rights back, but at least this is available to you. So we need to make sure people know about these parts of the law.
However, maybe this issue will get more attention in the next few years. 2013 was the first year for termination of transfers for works produced since 1978, so people have just recently been able to take advantage of these provisions. As more famous works become available for transfer termination, people may start talking about sections 203 and 304 more. Then who knows what’ll happen.