Writers can now get their songs back in the living years, through the added terms of Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act. (That is, starting after January 1st of 2013). The Copyright Act permits writers, or their heirs, to terminate grants of copyright assignments and licenses made after January 1, 1978, within a 5 year window, effective 35 years after the date of the original grant.
While congress’ original intent in coming up with “renewals” for copyrights in the 1909 Copyright Act was for the writers to have an opportunity, later in life, to enjoy the benefits of their earlier successful works, publishers made it a practice to have writers assign those future renewals to the publisher. The only “out” was if the writer didn’t survive to the renewal date, whereupon the future assignment of renewal to the publisher wasn’t valid. In order for pre-1978 songs to revert back to the writers, they pretty much had to die. That caused some obvious problems with retirement planning. Renewals became more like a life insurance policy rather than a living retirement subsidy.
Now that’s all changed. Big songs first assigned in the year 1978 are eligible to be “recaptured” by the living writers effective in 2013. There are still some specific hoops to jump through, such as when and how to send the termination notices (not greater than 10 years and not less than 2 years before the 5 year window). But, for the most part, these rights cannot be assigned away ahead of time. So now, for the first time in over 100 years, the intent of the U.S. Congress for the majority of living writers to enjoy the benefits of their works later in life is becoming a reality.
“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” – Colette