We’ve written before about ‘reversion’ laws – which protect authors by helping them recover their copyrights in certain situations.
So you might be interested in knowing about a current American court case involving songs sung by Frank Sinatra. Warner/Chappell, a publishing company, is suing another company, Bourne Co, who gets the royalties from songs written by composer Jimmy Van Heusen. The key here is that old British law we’ve previously talked about, which ensured copyrights that had previously been sold by an author would go back to their children or other heirs 25 years after death. According to Complete Music Update, Van Heusen passed away in 1990. Therefore in 2015 the rights in his songs would have gone back to his children, rather than staying with Warner/Chappell. However, Bourne Co claims that they acquired these rights. You can read the summons that Warner/Chappell filed, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, if you would like more details about the case.
This old law used to apply throughout the Commonwealth. It still exists in Canada, and applies to works old before 1969 in Australia, 1956 in the UK and 1963 in New Zealand. For those works heirs have new chances to benefit from the author’s work. It also opens up opportunities to make it more broadly available to the public – for example, through self-publishing or directly licensing into new markets (like streaming services or libraries).
There’s no reversionary right for works created today, in Australia, NZ or the UK. Should there be? That’s one of the things our research is trying to figure out.