Copyright Termination and Reversion FAQs

Yes, termination notices have to be in a very specific format outlined by the Register of Copyrights and contain specific information about the grant being terminated. Additionally, a copy of the termination must be recorded with the copyright office. We strongly recommend hiring an experienced attorney to draft and serve termination notices on your behalf. If you send a defective termination notice, the termination will not be effective and you may miss your opportunity to terminate the grant if the termination notice window passes.

This is a legal term used to describe the process of taking the idea you have in your head and putting it into a tangible form, whether it’s writing it down on paper, saving it on a computer, etc. It is an important concept in copyright law because the moment of “fixation” is the moment a copyright is secured for works created on or after January 1, 1978. The practical meaning of the fixation concept is that you can’t copyright that melody that’s been kicking around in your head – write it down!!

A work for hire is a work that is created by an employee within the scope of his or her employment OR a work specially ordered or which falls into one of the following categories, provided that the parties agree in writing that it is a work for hire:

A contribution to a collective work, a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, a translation, a supplementary work a compilation, an instructional text, a test, an answer material for a test, or an atlas

An “employee” in the eyes of copyright law is much different than what an “employee” is in everyday conversation. In everyday conversation, an employee might simply be one does work for another party for financial or other compensation, but for copyright purposes, an “employee” is much harder to define and a legal, employee-employer relationship does not actually exist in many cases, particular with respect to songwriters and music publishers. What this means for songwriters is that even if you signed a publishing agreement which says you were a publisher’s employee and that all your songs were work for hires, you probably weren’t actually an “employee.” And since a song is not included in any of the nine categories set forth above, your song can’t be a work for hire (even if you signed something agreeing that it was a work for hire!), and you therefore may be able to send your publisher a termination notice and regain ownership of your song. We recommend consulting a knowledgeable attorney to advise you further.

A joint work is a work (such as a song) that is written by two or more authors who intend to merge their individual contributions into a inseparable whole. Usually, if you write a song with a buddy or a bandmate, you’re creating a joint work. Whether or not a work is a joint work affects the duration of copyright and certain reversionary rights in the BRTs (more on the BRTs below) in the event of an author’s death.

There is more info about joint works on our Legal Problems With Co-Writers page.

“Publication” in its simplest form means distributing copies of the work to the public. After a work has been distributed to the public, it is called a “published” work. The two primary means of publication for songs are the distribution of sheet music (and/or lyrics) and distributing a song on a “phonorecord” (CD, cassette tape, vinyl, MP3, piano-roll, etc.). Note that distribution of a song on a phonorecord only constitutes publiciation if it is done after January 1, 1978. A public performance alone is not enough to constitute publication. So if you have only played your song at live shows, it is unpublished. But as soon as you sell a MP3 on iTunes, it becomes published.

Copyright registrations are filed with the Library of Congress and they contain information about the work being registered, including who the authors and claimants (for songs, this is usually the songwriter or publisher) are, and whether the work has been published or not. Copyright registrations are not required to secure copyright protection, but they do provide additional benefits, particularly in the event of an infringement. It can also be very helpful to have a public record of your copyright claim on file at the Copyright Office.

A renewal registration can only be made for copyrights originally secured prior to January 1, 1978 and are done in order to secure renewal term copyright protection (up to an extra 67 years after the initial 28 years of copyright protection). In many cases, failure to file a renewal registration during the “renewal filing period” can cause the work to enter the public domain, though certain works benefit from automatic renewals even if a renewal registration is not filed.

An anonymous work is a work which does not have a known author. A pseudonymous work is a work written by an author under a fictitious name.

A grant of rights in this context is any exclusive or non-exclusive transfer of copyright or license of any right under copyright. With respect to songwriting and music publishing, a grant is commonly the sale of all or part of a copyright in a song by a songwriter to a music publisher pursuant to an exclusive songwriter agreement, a publishing agreement or a co-publishing agreement. A grant can also exist where there is no actual transfer of copyright ownership (for example, an administration agreement or sub-publishing agreement). For purposes of this calculator, we assume that the grant is for the full duration of the copyright, including renewals and extensions thereof. If this is not the case and the grant only covers a specific period of time, you may not need to worry about terminations or reversions.

The grant includes the right of publication if the grantee is authorized to “publish” (see above Q&A) the work being granted. If you sold your song to a music publisher, the grant very likely allows the publisher to publish your song. If the song was in publication as of the date of the grant, for purposes of this calculator, use the date of the grant as the date of publication. If the song was previously published, fell out of publication as of the date of the grant, but was subsequently republished after the grant, use the date the work was republished as the publication date for purposes of this calculator.

Foreign works are beyond the scope of this calculator. Determining the status of copyright protection for foreign works can often be difficult. There is a good resource for this here.

The British Reversionary Territories are a group of territories whose copyright laws provide for rights granted by authors (such as a sale of a song to a music publisher) to revert back to the author’s heirs at a certain period after the author’s death, even if the rights were granted to a third party (like a music publisher) throughout the world for the full duration of the copyrights. The great thing about BRT reversions is that there is no time limit for authors’ heirs to claim these rights and there are no formal notifications necessary!

Because the termination right is unique to the United States, most people believe that you can only get rights back in the United States. However, the termination laws don’t have language limiting the termination right to the United States, so you may be able to argue that you should get worldwide rights back. Check with your attorney about this.