Record Industry Braces for Copyright Battles

It seems like the recording industry and record labels are up for a fight, with new information being revealed that may cause artists to take back ownership of their music. Thanks to a little-talked-about provision in United States copyright law, artists whose songs are 35 years old or more are able to utilize “termination rights,” which allow them to regain control of their work.

In the mid-1970s, copyright law was revised to include the loophole that artists could ask for their work back after 35 years, so long as they apply at least two years in advance. Recordings from 1978 are the first to fall under this provision of the law, but in a matter of months, songs from 1979 will also be eligible to be “taken back.”

The provision also permits songwriters to reclaim ownership of qualifying songs – Bob Dylan has already filed to regain some of his compositions, as have other performers like Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, Loretta Lynn, and Tom Waits.

With the recording industry already facing plummeting sales, termination rights claims could issue a serious blow – sales plunged to about $6.3 billion, down from $14.6 billion, over the decade ending in 2009 – largely due to unauthorized downloads on the Internet.

“This is a life-threatening change for them, the legal equivalent of Internet technology,” said Kenneth J. Abdo, a lawyer who leads a termination rights working group or the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and has filed claims for some of his clients.

Interestingly, the four major record companies – Universal, Sony BMG, EMI, and Warner – are prepared to fight for recordings they believe to be their property.  “We believe the termination right doesn’t apply to most sound recordings,” said Steven Marks, general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America.

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