When someone thinks of copyright, most imagine a budding songwriter growing his career by exercising his legal rights. However, for those trying to make it in the music industry, the reality is quite different. Most songwriters rely on publishers to get their songs out there to artists and record labels. To successfully be signed by a publisher, most songwriters are required to sign away the copyrights in their songs to the publisher. This significantly decreases the amount of royalties that songwriters receive. It also limits the decision-making power of songwriters over their works.

However, Congress anticipated such inequality between songwriters and publishers when it amended the Copyright Act through 17 U.S.C. § 203. Section 203 allows creators “to terminate grants of copyright assignments and licenses that were made on or after January 1, 1978 when certain conditions have been met. Notices of termination may be served no earlier than 25 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 30 years after the execution of the grant or 25 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first).” Thus, songwriters were given the right to reclaim their copyrights from publishers. Such a benefit was hardly felt at the time the law was promulgated. However, as of 2013, artists began to exercise their right to revocation by filing notices of termination.

The process for revocation is outlined through the following example: suppose a song was written and assigned on January 2, 1978; the writer could get his/her copyright back between the years 2013 and 2018 (1978 + 35 years + 5-year window). Termination letters could be sent beginning in 1993 and no later than 2016 (10 years prior to 2013 and less than two years before 2018). If done correctly and timely, publishers cannot deny these termination letters. However, if a songwriter does not send a proper termination letter during the proper time frame, the publishing contract will go into effect and the publisher would continue to own the copyrights for life of the copyright.

Since 2013, the music industry is seeing a shift in the relationship between songwriters and publishers. Many classic copyrights from the 1970’s, including the song “YMCA”, have already reverted back to the original writer. As Victor Willis, the writer of “YMCA”, says, “I’m hoping that other artists will get a good lawyer and get back the works that a lot of us gave away when we were younger, before we knew what was going on.”


— Carie Cartwright



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