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The Copyright Act provides a little known and little understood way to get your rights back after you’ve transferred them. The rules are tricky and two provisions in the law have similar but distinct terms so you’ll need expert advice for your particular case. But here are the high notes.
The Copyright Act (section 203) provides that a transfer or license of copyright (or any right in the bundle of rights) executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978, is subject to termination under the following conditions:
- A single author who executed a grant may terminate it. If the author is deceased, then whoever is entitled to exercise more than one-half of that author’s rights may terminate it.
- If two or more authors executed a grant of a joint work, a majority of the authors who executed it may terminate it. If any of the joint authors is dead, his or her termination interest may be exercised by whoever is entitled to exercise more than one-half of that author’s interest.
This single, extremely valuable section of the Copyright Act, allowing for the reclaiming of rights by terminating transfers, empowers authors. Note that the statutory termination provision does not apply to works made for hire or to transfers made by will. The termination right also does not apply to rights arising under foreign laws or derivative works. In the case of derivative works (for example, a movie based on a book), termination of the rights to the underlying work (the book) does not prevent the continued display and distribution of the derivative movie. Once the rights are terminated, however, no new derivative works can be created.
Not surprisingly, the rules to exercise the statutory termination right are specific and must be strictly adhered to or the right will be forever lost. In addition, the Copyright Office does not provide printed forms for the use of persons serving notices of termination.