The copyright laws of both the UK and the US include provisions for reversion and for termination of transfers of copyright that are only too easy to overlook when conducting due diligence or other chain of title investigations in commercial transactions. Music publishers in the UK were rudely reminded of the provisions in the early 1980s, when they found that a large number of compositions they thought they controlled for the full term of copyright had in fact either already reverted to composers’ estates and then been put into the hands of Redwood Music or would revert and then fall into Redwood’s control 25 years after the death of the author. The US provisions have been the subject of more recent litigation, most notably in the 2017 decision of the English court concerning the Duran Duran copyrights, the subject of one of our Client Alerts last year.
While the UK’s reversion provisions only benefit authors’ estates, the US termination provisions can benefit living authors too. This note by our trans-Atlantic Entertainment and Media Law team explains how the respective provisions work.
Under the 1911 Copyright Act, if an author of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work (other than a photograph) assigned or granted an interest in the copyright in one of their works to a third party, that assignment or grant ceased to be effective 25 years after the end of the year in which the author died. At that point the copyright automatically became vested in the author’s estate. The purpose of the legislation was to enable an improvident author’s heirs to benefit from the further exploitation of works the author had created, where the author had assigned away or (as has been authoritatively suggested) had granted an exclusive licence of the works. In practice, this purpose was rarely achieved, partly because the representatives of many authors’ estates simply did not realise that they had gained ownership of the authors’ copyrights, and partly because on or after 1 June 1957, when the 1956 Copyright Act changing the law came into force, many authors signed away their reversionary interest if asked to do so by their publishers. Moreover, any person to whom the author had made a specific bequest of the reversionary interest was at liberty to sell it at once rather than wait for the 25 year period to elapse, and many such persons did so.
Although the Copyright Act 1956 abolished the reversionary right in respect of assignments and grants of exclusive licences made by authors on or after 1 June 1957, that Act and the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act have perpetuated the reversionary right in respect of assignments and exclusive licences made and entered into before that date. Although the abolition occurred more than 60 years ago, there are still catalogues of authors’ works that were assigned or exclusively licensed before June 1957 and that have many years of copyright protection still to run. When dealing with disposals and acquisitions of catalogues of older copyright works it is vital to consider whether the effects of the automatic reversion have been dealt with. As will be apparent, this provision of the 1911 Copyright Act continues to set a trap for the unwary and to offer an opportunity for authors’ heirs to regain control of works that they see opportunities to exploit.