Reclaiming Song Copyrights

The US Copyright Act 1976 (“the Act”) gives artists the right to reclaim ownership of the copyright in works assigned by them prior to 1978.

The Act states that an artist may terminate all agreements for the grant, licence or transfer of US copyright entered into before 1978 by serving notice upon the assignee or licensee 56 to 61 years after the date on which the copyright was originally secured.

Although many well known artists have successfully taken back ownership of their rights in the US by relying on this statutory provision, Duran Duran were sadly denied this opportunity when they attempted to reclaim the rights to 37 of their songs from Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC (“Sony”) at the High Court of Justice in England. The claim failed due to a lack of evidence that the Act would override the terms of their publishing agreement with Sony which was governed by English law.

The case confuses the position for British songwriters as it creates a situation where a US court could decide that US rights revert to the artist under the provisions of the Act, but an English court could find that this reversion constituted a breach of the publishing agreement, giving rise to a claim for damages for breach of contract against the artist.

On 18th January 2017, Sir Paul McCartney filed a claim in the US against Sony for a declaratory judgement in order to clarify whether his publishing rights will revert to him in accordance with the Act. Mr McCartney is asking the court to declare that in invoking the provisions of the Act and reclaiming the copyright in the Beatles songs, he will not be in breach of the terms of his publishing agreement. If successful, he will be able to reclaim his US copyright in a number of songs he wrote and co-wrote with John Lennon between 1962 and 1971.

What does this mean for UK artists and publishers?

Publishing agreements need to be properly drafted and sufficiently detailed in order to provide for the effect of various copyright laws around the world.

Artists, bands and songwriters should ensure that they receive specialist legal advice on the terms of their publishing agreements as they may contain long term implications.