For now, we can rejoice. The Federal District Court in Los Angeles recently ruled that artists can, in some circumstances, terminate the transfers of copyright that they may have executed in favor of record labels or publishing companies some 35 years ago. As you may recall, I discussed Section 203 terminations of transfers here and here.
For years, and in fact still, record labels and publishing companies argued that songs recorded or written pursuant to contract were technically “works for hire,” that is, works made by employees in the scope of their employment. The only problem was that artists were never treated like employees of the companies for which they wrote or recorded, and only works created by employees are subject to the work for hire doctrine.
But though that logic was always spurious at best, we hadn’t been able to test it until now. Section 203 states that transfers of copyright made on or after 1978 can be terminated after 35 years. Thirty-five years after 1978 is 2013. The case discussed in the article linked to above was brought by a member of the Village People, and it is the first of many. Although the decision of the District Court in Los Angeles is binding only upon that district and may be appealed, it’s a good start and hopefully other jurisdictions, and potentially the Supreme Court, will agree and eventually make this the law of the land.
On a final note, it will be interesting to see how these subsequent decisions, if they go the same way as the decision of the District Court in Los Angeles, will affect the already struggling major labels, which in some cases have only lasted this long due to the revenue that they receive from the continuing sales of their back catalogs. Regardless, I think that this is the right decision and it should put more money into the pockets of artists.
If you wrote a song in the late 70s or 80s and want to begin the process of potentially reclaiming your copyrights, then read this article and this article and contact us. You have to comply with the precise language of Section 203 in order to effectuate the termination.
For the Village People, congratulations – you don’t have to stay at the YMCA tonight.