Musicians Starting To Assert Copyright Termination Rights Against Record Labels
from the this-ought-to-be-interesting... dept
There’s been a lot of attention recently to the news that the heirs of comic book artist Jack Kirby are alerting companies of plans to take back the copyright on various Kirby characters, using the termination rights in the Copyright Act. This followed a very long and drawn out lawsuit involving a similar attempt over Superman. The details are really complex, but copyright law allows the original creator (or heirs if that creator has passed away) certain opportunities to basically negate a deal that was signed early on to hand over the copyright on certain works. The idea was to help protect artists who signed bad deals, but in practice, it’s just been a total mess.
Still, given the success of the Superman saga in getting at least some of the copyrights back, suddenly lots of people are looking to see what other copyrights can be reclaimed. Apparently, a bunch of musicians are now lining up to try to regain their rights from the labels starting in 2013 (the first year musical works are eligible). As the article notes, with record labels still too clueless to figure out how to successfully build business models around new acts, many still rely on sales of old music to bring in a lot of their revenue. If the labels lose the copyrights on much of that music… well… let’s just say suddenly The Pirate Bay may be the least of their concerns.
The labels, of course, are aware of all of this, and have been planning a strategy to fight it for years. As was detailed in William Patry’s latest book, in 1999 the RIAA was able to get Congress to amend copyright law in the middle of the night (literally), to change musical works to “work for hire,” which does not have a termination right associated with it. There were loud protests from many artists, and Congress quickly backed down. Still, the record labels are going to claim that, even without that clearly written in the law, the music created by musicians on the labels were, in fact, “works for hire.”
So, get ready for a series of long and drawn out lawsuits from the labels over this issue. They certainly realize that even if they eventually lose, by taking it to court, they can delay that day of reckoning for quite some time. Now, to be clear, I tend to have a problem with the whole concept of these termination rights. If you’ve contractually agreed to give up your copyright, that should be that. It only causes more problems (as we see) down the road to offer some sort of automatic out, not negotiated into the contract. That said, the very fact that the labels are freaking out about this and intend to go to court against the artists over this should (once again) be a reminder that the labels and the RIAA have never had “the artists’ best interests” in mind in whatever they do. The fact that politicians and many in the press still think that the labels represent the artists’ interests is pretty ridiculous. Hopefully, things like these upcoming lawsuits will help clarify that for them.