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Copyright Come Home

Before I get in to this, I should remind you that the 10th annual Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit is taking place Oct. 3-5 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. If you’re a muso of any stripe, this will be a mind-blowing event. Featured speakers include T. Bone Burnett, Chuck D, Tim Westergren (Pandora), Ian Rogers (Topspin Media) and Fred Von Lohmann (EFF). Musician scholarships are available, and the whole thing is cheap to begin with. I’m on a panel on Sunday. Come on down and rock it with me. Info at Future ofmusic.org.

OK. Two weeks ago I said I’d talk to you about what I’m calling the Great Rights Reversion Migration of 2013. So here we go.

Once upon a time, Congress made copyright laws that supported the constitutional purpose of copyright law: the betterment of society. Laws were thoughtfully debated, and academics and experts were sought out to describe how new copyright laws might or might not be good for society. Many lawmakers were thoughtful and paid attention, and we got a fair and sturdy bunch of laws as a result. Those days are long gone. These days most new copyright laws are written by lobbyists for Big Media companies, and Congress dutifully passes them because they’re “good for business.”

Anyway, there is a provision in the copyright law that, believe it or not, was designed to protect and reward artists who sell their copyrights to somebody else. This law says that you can reclaim your copyrights—you can just ask for them and get them back—35 years after you transfer them. Yes, the law was put in place to protect artists who transferred their copyrights for cheap when they were young and broke, or pursuant to lousy deals that paid them squat. This law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1978 and applies to all works transferred after that date. Thirty-five years after that is Jan. 1, 2013, the day when artists can start getting their stuff back. In 2013, anybody who transferred their rights in 1978 can go reclaim them; in 2014, anybody who transferred in 1979; and so on.

While this reversion right applies to anything that’s subject to copyright law, it’s expected to have the biggest impact on the music business. Let’s see, what American artists had big albums in 1978? Journey, Talking Heads, Foreigner, Boston, Tom Petty, Van Halen, the Cars, Billy Joel . . . and the list goes on. Yup, we’re talking about the heart of what’s come to be called “classic rock,” a whole bunch of the most valuable music in the history of music.

And all this music might be coming home to Daddy.

As you can imagine, the music industry, which has made a fortune selling this music to you numerous times (all of this stuff has been out on vinyl albums, cassettes, CDs, digital downloads, remastered versions, best-of repackages, soundtracks, etc.), isn’t taking this sitting down. In 1999, the industry tried to sneak a law through Congress that would have reclassified all of this music, post hoc, as “works for hire.” This would mean that all of the music would be owned by the record companies from the git-go, with no transfer by the artist, and no right of reversion. A congressional staffer, acting on behalf of the RIAA, tacked an amendment to the copyright law onto a satellite television bill that got passed in the middle of the night and signed by Bill Clinton shortly after. Nobody even knew it was in there. Problem solved! Musicians screwed!

Ahhhh . . . not so fast there, Bucko. In a remarkable display of power politicking, a bunch of well-spoken musicians (including Don Henley and Sheryl Crow) descended on Washington and got the bastard law revoked. However, the RIAA got language in the revoking bill stating that neither the facts of the passage of the law, nor its revocation, could be considered by a court of law. Let’s all pretend it just didn’t happen!

So, basically, the whole “work for hire” argument was left for another day. And that day is almost here. You can bet that the industry will fight tooth-and-nail any artists attempting to exercise their legal right to get the copyrights to their master recordings back. The legal machinery is already gearing up for the fight. I’ve looked at this issue every-which-a-way and I don’t see where the labels have a chance. Congress doesn’t list sound recordings as a category of works that can be a “work for hire.” And recordings don’t fit any of the other categories. The law is there for precisely the reason the musicians are going to use it: to get out of old, bad deals.

And that Congressional staffer who snuck in the language in 1999? He’s now the RIAA’s chief lobbyist, getting paid a whole lot of money. I kid you not.

—Paul Rapp


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