We are grateful to Professor Lydia Pallas Loren of Lewis & Clark School of Law for contributing the following guest post.
The U.S. Copyright Act is clear: Authors have a right to terminate a transfer of their copyrights 35 years after they have signed on the dotted line.* That right to terminate cannot be waived, nor is there any way to “contract around” it. It does not matter if the contract purports to assign the copyright for “the entire term of copyright” or “in perpetuity” or if the contract prohibits any attempts at termination. Why did Congress include this significant, unwaivable right in its comprehensive revision of the Copyright Act?
Some assert that the reason for the termination rights is paternalistic—it seeks to protect authors who, in general, lack business acumen. By providing authors with an ability to recapture their copyrights, the law gives authors, who need government protection, a second bite of the apple. But, if authors on a whole lack business acumen, what makes us think the author would be any better at obtaining a deal on more favorable terms 35 years later?
In fact, the evidence points in another direction to explain Congress’ decision. Congress recognized that often transfers of copyright are entered into before the authors have solid information from which to assess the value of the copyrighted work. This puts the author in what Congress called an “unequal bargaining position.” After 35 years has passed, they should have more information about the work’s value, and that would be an appropriate time to allow the author to enter into a new bargain, based on a better assessment of the value of the work. In other words, Congress viewed the termination right as a way for authors to obtain compensation at a level that more accurately reflects the true value of their works.
For the author who sold their copyright for a pittance and the work turned out to be a blockbuster, termination can play out the way Congress thought it might. But the termination right is not just about money. For an author who thinks her publisher has not done enough to market the book and that explains its lackluster sales, terminating that transfer allows the author to seek out a new publisher. For the author whose work has failed to gain a commercially viable audience, but whose work has noncommercial value, such as for research, terminating the transfer allows the author to seek out a new “home” for that copyrighted work. Once the copyright has been recaptured by the author, that new home might be with a new publisher, or it might in the public domain (through a dedication to the public), or on an open access platform.
Armed with the information gained about the appeal of the work over the 35 year period in which the copyright was owned by someone else, Congress provided the author with a way to renegotiate the deal. And that is precisely what Congress intended when it created the termination right.
* Note that the timing of the termination right can vary depending on the circumstances and the date of the contract—see the Authors Alliance/Creative Commons Termination of Transfer tool for more information.
Lydia Pallas Loren is Henry J. Casey Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. Professor Loren is the author of Renegotiating the Copyright Deal in the Shadow of the ‘Inalienable’ Right to Terminate.