Under U.S. copyright law, authors (or, if the authors are not alive, their surviving spouses, children, or executors), can “terminate” copyright assignments they have previously made in certain circumstances and regain rights to their work. Consequently, even if an author, musician, or filmmaker signed an agreement transferring all rights in their work in perpetuity, the Copyright Act provides that the author can terminate that grant and demand that the rights revert. Essentially, the author is getting a second chance to make money from his work.
Congress deemed these provisions desirable “because of the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work's value until it has been exploited.” However, the mechanism that Congress put in place in order to allow authors and their heirs to regain their rights is complicated.
Copyright termination rights are found in § 203 and § 304 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. The relevant provisions in § 203 of the statute set forth that “[i]n the case of any work other than a work made for hire, the exclusive or nonexclusive grant of a transfer or license of copyright or of any right under a copyright, executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978, otherwise than by will, is subject to termination. Termination of works assigned after January 1, 1978 may be exercised during a five-year window that starts 35 years after the date of assignment under certain conditions. These conditions include the requirement that the author provide notice of an intent to exercise the termination right between two and ten years before the effective date of the termination. On the effective date of termination, all rights previously transferred from the author to the grantee revert to the author.
Works previously created before termination can continue to be distributed. The owner of a film produced based on a novel, for example, can continue to exploit the movie because that grant was prepared under authority of rights before termination. However, no new sequels or remakes could be made after termination.
It bears noting that termination rights cannot be waived in advance by contract including an agreement to make a will or to make any future grant.” §§ 203(a)(5), 304(c)(5).
These rules do not apply when the content created was made as a work for hire. This is one reason it is preferable for producers to enter into work for hire agreements with their collaborators, rather than obtain rights from them by way of assignment.
Notices of termination may be served no earlier than 25 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 30 years after the execution of the grant or 25 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first). However, termination of a grant cannot be effective until 35 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 40 years after the execution of the grant or 35 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first).
The provisions generally provide that transfers before 1978 can be terminated during a five-year period beginning at the end of 56 years from the date copyright was originally secured, while transfers after 1978 can be terminated during a five year period beginning either 35 or 40 years after execution of the grant, depending on the nature of the grant.