’70s songwriters first to test music copyright law

A 1970s copyright law may soon start to drain record companies of the right to millions of dollars of music. Intellectual property attorneys are speculating that artists who released material starting in 1978 will begin to take back rights to their music.

The decades-old legislation allows musicians to reclaim rights to their songs from record companies. Artists were granted so-called termination rights, which give them the ability to renew control of their musical works from record labels after 35 years. Eligible musicians are required to file a two-year advance notice.

Industry analysts say it is not likely the major record companies will part with music ownership without a court fight. Record labels like EMI, Universal and Sony BMG watched music sales plummet by more than 50 percent over the decade ending in 2009. Sales were heavily damaged by Internet piracy and continued sales of older artists continue to make up a large portion of revenue.

The wave of artists expected to ask to recover their musical intellectual property has already started. Filings have already been made by songwriters and performers like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Charlie Daniels.

An attorney for the record industry lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America, says the record companies are going to challenge the release of song ownership. He says the labels firmly believe they should own the songs forever because the musicians and performers were essentially employees of the labels at the time of the recordings.

The recording companies contend the music was created as “works for hire.” Other copyright experts, however, contend that many artists funded the making of the records with their own money and were essentially independent contractors, not record company employees. It will be interesting to see how the courts decide on these cases.

Source: The New York Times, “Record Industry Braces for Artists’ Battles Over Song Rights,” Larry Rohter, Aug. 15, 2011