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You Can Still Get Out of Jail Free

6 February 2012

Here’s a repost from last June of an important copyright bulletin for veteran authors.

With all the recent news we’ve seen about the many and varied ways authors can get screwed out of their work, Passive Guy thought a little sweetness and light was in order.

Sorry, but this sweetness and light won’t apply to you young pups and puppettes. This is a geezer-only sweetness and light bulletin.

However, as the night follows the day, whelps grow into geezers, so this sweetness and light is something the younger generations can look forward to as partial compensation for the future bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare.

The headline: Section 203 of the Copyright Act allows authors and their heirs to terminate a copyright license executed on or after January 31, 1978, thirty-five years after it was signed.

It doesn’t matter if the publication contract says it goes on forever, the license can be terminated and the author can regain all rights to the book.

Since some authors are not good at math, a contract signed in 1978 may be terminated in 2013. For the 1978 stuff, you can send a Notice of Termination in 2011.

Copyright attorney Lloyd J. Jassin tells you all about it:

The impending economic dislocation will manifest itself in the loss of evergreen or backlist titles, as authors, or their heirs, exercise their right to terminate publishing agreements and recapture their copyrights. What is a threat to mainstream book publishers, is otherwise an opportunity for a cheaper, more flexible kind of book publishing. With the ability to recapture rights, access to indie distributors and print on demand technology, authors (and their heirs) will have to decide how much faith they should place in their existing publisher relationships. My guess is that “life of copyright” grants will soon become the exception, not the rule. This article explains why.

. . . .

To protect authors of older works from having to live with a bad deal they entered into when they had little negotiating skill or leverage, the Copyright Act allows authors (and their heirs) to recapture copyrights by sending notices of termination to their publisher partners. This often overlooked, but powerful right, serves as an “insurance policy” for authors who signed away their rights for less than adequate compensation.

. . . .

This lucrative right of termination does not concern itself with when the work was published or registered; it only concerns itself with when the copyright grant or license was signed by the author. Succinctly stated, “Termination may be exercised at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever is earlier.”

The process of terminating an old contract is not a simple one and you’ll need an attorney to do it. While PG is not acquainted with Mr. Jassin, he sounds knowledgeable about this process.

For your convenience, Mr. Jassin lists a few 1978 books that appear to be candidates for termination of existing publishing contracts:

1. The Stand – Stephen King
2. Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
3. The House of God – Samuel Shem
4. The Far Pavilions – M.M. Kaye
5. Holcroft Covenant – Robert Ludlum
6. Chesapeake – James Michener
7. If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits – Erma Bombeck

Link to the rest at Copylaw

Contracts, Copyright, Legal Stuff