A Power Shift Back to Artists?
One Minnesota artist is leading the charge in taking back power from large music labels. Songwriter Steve Greenberg, through his attorney, recently invoked an underutilized section of the Copyright Act, which allows an author to re-claim ownership of a copyright-protected work after 35 years have passed. 17 U.S.C. § 203 specifically provides:
In 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 the grant may be effected at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant; or, if the grant covers the right of publication of the work, the period begins at the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever term ends earlier.
Greenberg’s claim to fame is “Funkytown” – the quintessential disco song that has been played in every type of media from radio to movies, from TV to live theaters, and even in museums. Although Greenberg has made a great deal of money off the song through royalties and licensing fees, Universal Music Group, the record label that has owned the copyright since the song’s release in 1980, has made much more.
Come 2015, however, ownership will likely transfer to Greenberg, who will then hold significant bargaining power. A successful transfer would mean Greenberg could either administer his copyright himself, or negotiate with Universal for better royalty and license rates. Whatever the outcome, the power has begun to shift back into the hands of musical authors.
Notably, termination of transfers are not limited to musical works – a grant of a transfer or a license of copyright as to any copyright-protected work may be terminated pursuant to § 203. Thus, termination is a powerful tool to keep in mind for clients, especially during this tough economic climate. More information on termination of transfers can be found at: http://www.copyright.gov/docs/203.html and http://www.copyright.gov/docs/201-10-final.pdf.