When copyright law was revised in 1976, there was a provision that gave artists control of their work after 35 years, provided they applied two years in advance. The law didn't go into effect until 1978, but now artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Loretta Lynn can start applying to reclaim their qualifying works from that year. As it turns out, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) isn't too happy about it.
If this news sounds like insider-baseball and perhaps even a little boring, think again: The law part isn't what really matters here, it's the implication of what happens between the artists and the RIAA now that's going to have a huge impact on the recording industry. This doesn't stop in 1978, '79 can be applied for next year, '80 the next and so on.
Talking to the New York Times, general counsel for the RIAA Steven Marks says: "We believe the termination right doesn't apply to most sound recordings." He iterated the record industry would fight this, and they believe they own the works by the artists, regardless of what year it is.
The RIAA's claim comes with little merit; they claim they own the master recordings in perpetuity, not the artists or the songs because they deem the records themselves works for hire. Here's the problem: Works for hire are reserved for employees. So, a musical arrangement written by a salaried staff member for a record company would be a work for hire, as would, say, a newspaper article written by a staff member of a newspaper. If a piece is deemed work for hire, the copyright lasts 95 years.
But even the likes of Springsteen and Dylan were never employees and typically paid for their recordings either out of their own pockets, or with advances from the label. They didn't have taxes taken out by the labels, they weren't offered health care and they certainly didn't pay into social security. Basically, they were contract labor, and contract labor should qualify to get the rights back after 35 years.
There are still some issues that need to be worked out. The most pressing is defining who an artist actually is. Since many recordings have several people working on them, including studio musicians, engineers and producers, who can actually file a claim is up in the air. Still, the fact remains these could very well be leaving record company hands and we're talking big albums here, Van Halen's Van Halen, Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, The Car, the Jam, Dire Straits, Kraftwerk and plenty more.
The biggest implication and the most interesting one is seeing what artists will do if they regain control of their works. There's a good chance this could go all the way through the Supreme Court, but if huge, multi-billion dollar recording artists no longer have to pay the labels to release their records, we might see a massive sea change in the industry as a whole.
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How does a free Tom Waits album sound? Or maybe a pay-what-you-want copy of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town? If these end up sparking lawsuits, it will define how we view the Copyright Act of 1976 for years to come.