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
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.