Why Reversion of Rights is Essential in Entertainment Contracts

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A variety of factors come into play in music publishing contracts, but reversion of rights is arguably one of the most important. Often referred to as rights reversions, these stipulations allow for songwriters to regain all or some of their initial rights to creative work under a select set of circumstances. While the concept may seem simple, rights reversions can prove surprisingly complicated in contract negotiations — especially in the entertainment industry. AEILAW could be an invaluable resource for ensuring that you eventually regain rights to your creative work.

It’s important to gain a sense for the copyright laws that make reversion rights possible and the various forms reversion rights can take. Below, we explore this essential contract provision — and we explain how you can make the most of it as you enter into a music production contract.

Why Do Creators Enjoy the Right to Reversion?

As a songwriter, you may find yourself in a precarious position as you record and release new material. You may feel confident in your work, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll make it big. In an effort to get your work published, you may accept inadvisable compromises that could leave you with little to show for your efforts if your song proves a hit. Keeping this in mind, Congress has created provisions allowing artists to regain copyrights. Eventually, these artists can enter into new licenses or simply seek more desirable licensing terms. Specifically, the Copyright Act’s Section 203 allows authors to terminate any deals involving the transfer of licensing or copyright after 35 years. At this point, the original author can regain ownership.

When Reversion Rights Get Complicated

Section 203 of the Copyright Act grants artists considerable leverage, but it takes several decades to go into effect. Even then, regaining licensing rights can prove tricky. Complicating factors could include:

  • Shared copyright if multiple songwriters contributed to the final product.
  • Assignment of the copyright to a different entity from the original.
  • When the work was produced and copyrighted.
  • Whether the work is deemed derivative (such as adaptations or sanctioned remixes).
  • The status of a song as a ‘work for hire.’
  • International matters: Where was the copyright initially granted — and where was it transferred?

The role of location in copyright matters has hit headlines in recent years due to a notable case involving Duran Duran. The band’s members have attempted to reclaim the rights to their work from several decades ago under United States copyright law. They previously signed a publishing agreement with Gloucester Place Music Ltd, however. Granted on an international basis, these United Kingdom contracts are technically exclusive to the jurisdiction of local courts.

Paul McCartney has faced similar concerns with reasserting his rights to material Sony/ATV Music Publishing obtained during the 1970s. McCartney was able to secure a settlement, but the members of Duran Duran didn’t fare quite as well; they lost their initial case and were granted leave to appeal.

Work For Hire

The concept of ‘work for hire’ often complicates rights reversion cases. Under this arrangement, the songwriter develops material essentially under an employee-employer relationship. In work for hire scenarios, the company commissioning the work holds the copyright. This has caught quite a few songwriters off guard. It is therefore of utmost importance that songwriters examine the nature of their relationship with music publishers or other commissioners prior to contract negotiations.

Negotiating Reversion Clauses

While U.S. Copyright law allows you to regain the rights to your work after several decades, it may be possible to secure rights far earlier — if this ability is specifically written into your contract. Often, reversion clauses allow for the return of rights after a decade or even just five years. Reversion clauses may also be drafted based on the song’s future performance. By taking the upfront approach of reversion clause negotiations, you can avoid what could otherwise be a 35-year wait before you can even hope to reclaim your copyright.

Unexploited Songs

Rights reversions are commonly used for unexploited songs, which have not yet been recorded or used for commercial purposes. Artists negotiating contracts for specific works may seek to include additional works in hopes that they will also eventually be recorded. This doesn’t always happen, of course, so the unexploited song reversion grants songwriters a backup option. If the unexploited song referenced in the contract is never recorded, the songwriter can regain his or her rights after a specific period of time.

As a songwriter, it’s essential that you think long-term when negotiating music publishing contracts. You’ll want to consider what will happen if your song proves a hit — and what will happen if it’s not published at all. Ideally, your contract will provide a viable solution in the event that either scenario arises. You could find yourself in a place of considerable power, capable of securing the compensation you’ve deserved all along. This possibility is well worth the effort of securing more favorable contract provisions.

February 25, 2019 · Tim Kevan · Comments Closed
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