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Who’s Gotten Their Copyright Back?

Titles Subject to Copyright Termination Notices by Type 1996-2019 - graph chart of titles by type per year

Currently in the United States, an author’s copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death or 95 years after its first publication. But what about when an author of a work grants their exclusive copyright to a publisher or some other partnership? In that case, an author can request that the work’s copyright revert to their sole ownership after 35 years.

It’s called reversion, and it doesn’t happen often, because it’s not automatic; there are legal hurdles to jump through to file copyright termination notices, meaning you need money, help, and strong motivation to make it happen. And in some famous cases (see virtually every famous superhero ever), if you’ve created something as a work for hire, copyright termination alone isn’t always going to get it done. But it does happen, and it’s interesting to see (and to measure, at scale) in just what cases it comes together.

That’s the subject of a new academic study by Joshua Yuvaraj, Rebecca Giblin, Daniel Russo-Batterham, and Genevieve Grant. The authors also created a complete dataset of copyright termination notices from 1978 to 2020 for other researchers to parse; their initial findings are summarized here by Cory Doctorow.

Few creators have managed to revert but the ones that have are fascinating. Stephen King is a leading reverter, as are George RR Martin, Nora Roberts and David Eddings. - successful authors who are able to claim back their works and seek new deals based on their track records.

A single YA author - Francine Pascal_ - accounts for nearly all the YA reversions, thanks to her reclaiming of all 305 of her Sweet Valley High novels (in kids’ books, Ann Martin attains another high-water mark for reverting the Baby-Sitters Club books).

But the most fascinating entry is funk titan George Clinton, who pursued his former manager Nene Montes for years, claiming he’d forged Clinton’s signature and defrauded him to steal the rights to most of Clinton’s prodigious and profitable catalog.

Thanks to reversion, Clinton was able to finally settle all question of title without expensive litigation - he simply reverted 1,413 works.

Other notable filers of termination notices include Philadelphia-based musical partners Gamble and Huff and Hall and Oates, and the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and playwright August Wilson. Another somewhat ironic entry is Pat Boone, who famously re-recorded many, many popular Black artists’ songs to cash in on segregated radio; Boone submitted 643 copyright termination notices for songs under his assigned copyright.

As the authors point out, there are limitations in the data set. Filing a copyright termination notice doesn’t mean that copyright automatically reverts back to the author; an author or their heirs might use the termination notice to successfully renegotiate their deal with the current licensee, or there may have been mistakes in their legal filings, or some other mishap.

Strangely, however, the authors note that while there are periodic spikes in copyright termination notice activity (for example, immediately after the statute was first passed in the 1970s), there’s currently a dip in termination requests under both sections of the copyright law that allows rights to be reverted. And the authors do not precisely whether it’s a periodic flux, or a long-term trend, or why either might be the case.