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At the Author’s Interest Project, we’ve been looking at reversion rights: that is, an author’s rights to regain copyright after a specified time or when certain criteria are met, like a book going out of print. We’ve looked at why reversion rights matter and why publishing contracts are often inadequate repositories for them. Because of this, we think that copyright lawmakers should consider giving authors minimum reversion rights that don’t depend on being included in a contract.

Study of the US termination right

But to make the best decisions on what these minimum reversion rights should look like, it’s important to study what they currently look like and how they’re working. We’ve previously looked at different reversion models around the world, but we’ve recently been zooming in on the US system. In the US, authors can end copyright assignments or licences after 35 years by sending a termination notice to their publisher, and filing it with the Copyright Office. The system is unique because it’s the only one that requires authors to log their termination notices in a public database. Records of these notices are stored on the Copyright Office’s Online Catalog. There’s a wealth of information here that tells us a lot about who is terminating and the types of works for which they are trying to regain rights.

What have we found?

We looked at records of these notices from the Catalog (with the assistance of the Melbourne Data Analytics Platform at the University of Melbourne) and made several interesting (preliminary) findings:

  1. Few books, mostly by successful authors, were formally subject to termination notices. These included books by Francine Pascal (the Sweet Valley High series), Ann Martin (The Babysitters Club series), Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Truman Capote, and Isaac Asimov.
  2. Sound recordings and songs were far more commonly subject to termination notices than books.
  3. But termination notices relating to sound recordings and songs were most commonly contested formally by music companies.
  4. Very few works of visual art were subject to termination notices.

What does it mean?

These preliminary trends suggest that termination use varies according to the type of creative work: mainly successful books by famous, well-known authors are subject to termination notices, whereas there are many songs and sound recordings and virtually no visual art works that are subject to termination notices. They also highlight the ongoing battle between artists and record companies over the rights to sound recordings, suggesting that both artists and record companies see value in their sound recordings even after 35 years.

We’re still completing our analysis and look forward to presenting our final results. But in the meantime, the trends we’ve identified give food for thought for lawmakers considering a termination-style system, like Canada currently is. They might suggest, for instance, that lawmakers should “target” reversion rights at specific types of works to ensure maximum take-up by authors. Perhaps literary authors aren’t terminating as much as recording artists because books rapidly lose value after a few years, so only the very successful ones will be valuable after 35 years. But this might be different if, like in Spain and Lithuania, authors were permitted to regain unused rights in their works after a few years, while those rights still had value.

As we’ve previously recommended, reversion laws should be developed in consultation with creative industry stakeholders so that they benefit everyone: authors, publishers, and the public alike. The data we’re finding on the US termination right suggests how minimum reversion rights might play out in practice, informing discussions and recommendations about “ideal” reversion systems in various countries.

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