Creator Groups Respond to Copyright Office’s Proposed Rule Changes to Ease Notice of Termination Requirements

From The Authors Guild:

The Authors Guild submitted comments in response to the Copyright Office’s proposed changes to its requirements for serving and filing notices of termination. Sections 203 and 304 of the Copyright Act give authors the right to terminate any grant of rights or contract after 35-40 years (or 56-61 years in the case of copyrights secured before 1978) by sending the grantee a notice of termination and recording it with the Copyright Office. The recent proposed changes would make the process of recording the notices easier by, among other things, giving the Copyright Office discretion to record notices that are untimely, and setting the date of recordation to the date on which the Office receives a copy of the notice instead of the date it receives the notice, fee, and other elements. Nine other creator organizations joined the Guild’s comments, which you can read below. 

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Following are excerpts from The Author’s Guild letter (a link to the entire letter is at the OP):

As the Copyright Office is well aware, the hard-won right to terminate grants of copyright
ownership, control and use after a set number of years, with certain exceptions and limitations,
were included in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 over the energetic objections of third-party
assignees. Congress acted in this regard as a result of its recognition of the inherent fairness and
necessity of such provisions in support of the advancement of the American creative community
and national culture, as envisioned under Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.
The plain fact underlying that visionary decision in 1976 by members of Congress is that
the accurate valuation of new works in virtually every artistic discipline is by definition an
impossible task. Under such circumstances, the only way to ensure that creators are fairly
compensated for creating works of enormous popularity and value is to legally empower them to
recapture copyright ownership or rights at some reasonable point after the grant. This new and
unique copyright termination rights regime, which commenced in 1978, has proven to be far more
effective in protecting the abilities of authors and their heirs to survive in the always-difficult
economic environment of the arts than the system of bifurcated copyright terms accomplished
under the 1909 Copyright Act.

. . . .

We strongly support the Office’s proposed amendment to restore its discretion to record
untimely notices “if equitable circumstances warrant.” As the Office notes in its 2010 analysis of

gap grants, “[t]ermination rights…have an equitable function; they exist to allow authors or their
heirs a second opportunity to share in the economic success of their works.”3
Considering that refusal to record a notice of termination can extinguish the right of
termination, the Office’s discretion in making equitable judgments to the extent allowed by the
statutes is vitally important. The Office, for its part, has diligently served as an equitable arbiter to
ensure that ambiguities in the termination statutes are resolved in favor of the termination
provision’s intended beneficiaries—authors.4 At the start of the decade, the Office undertook a
comprehensive analysis of “gap grants” to understand the consequences for grantors who sign a
contract years in advance of the work’s creation, something that is common in many creative
industries. In its report, the Office recognized that:

[T]he act of recordation by the Office and the refusal of recordation by the Office
do not carry equal weight under the law. The latter may permanently invalidate a
notice of termination that is otherwise legally sound. This fact and Office’s
obligation to provide clear guidance in its practices and the regulations compel the
Office to record [emphasis added] rather than reject notices of termination filed
under section 203.5

The Office notes in the present notice that the change in wording—from “the Copyright
Office reserves the right to refuse recordation of a notice of termination if….such notice of termination is untimely” to “the Copyright Office will refuse recordation of a notice of termination
as such if…such notice of termination is untimely” [emphasis added]—occurred in 2017 as part of
the parallel rulemaking on modernizing recordation practices without any discussion of reasons or
“whether [the change] was intended to narrow the Office’s discretion in this area.”6 Because this
change did not issue from rulemaking specifically about limiting the Office’s discretion, it’s
reasonable to assume that it does not compel the Office to reject untimely notices of termination
without respect to equitable circumstances even if the apparent ambiguity created by replacing
“reserves the right” to “will” opens one such interpretation. Nevertheless, the alteration that the
Office is now proposing—replacing “will” to “may”—removes the ambiguity and realigns the
wording with the Office’s practice of recording notices with minor errors as long as the mistakes
were made in good faith.

. . . .

Applying the Harmless Error Standard to Recordation Rules

We also support the proposed amendments to § 201.10(e)(1)–(2) to make compliance with
the Office’s recordation rules subject to the harmless error standard. Currently, the Office applies
the harmless error standard with respect to information contained in the notice to excuse good
faith errors that do not affect the adequacy of notice to the grantee. As such, the harmless error
standard adequately balances the equitable importance of the termination right for authors with
the practical necessity of providing enough information to the grantee to make them aware that
their rights in the work will expire on a certain date. A stricter compliance standard would burden
the ability of grantors to reclaim their rights, while a looser standard excusing even errors that
grossly misidentify the title or dates would defeat the purpose of the notice requirement. We think
this is a sensible approach that should apply to all requirements pertaining to termination notices.

. . . .

Identification of Work

We think that allowing remitters to identify the work by either title or registration number
or both makes good sense, and we support the proposed changes to § 201.10 (b)(2)(iv). We agree
with the Office that there is a greater risk of material errors being made by mistakes in the
registration number that could affect the adequacy of a notice (such as a transposition error in the
registration number that identifies another work), and that this risk should be noted in the
Office’s instructions for remitters. The Office might also consider issuing a circular specifically
discussing common errors that can materially affect the adequacy of a notice, with examples of
material and harmless errors.

. . . .

Optional Form for Remitters

We strongly support the Copyright Office’s creation of a form or template to assist
remitters in creating and serving notices of termination to help ensure that all of the required
regulatory and statutory elements are included. An online form that creators could fill out to
generate a letter would be ideal. The creator could simply print out the termination notice letter
for physical service (or serve it by email if and when the Office starts allowing service by email).
The Office might even consider integrating the termination form into the Enterprise Copyright
System (ECS) to harness the power of a centralized and interlinked database. For instance, the

Office could consider programming automated alerts that would pop up if any information
entered by the user in the termination form conflicts with information in the registration record (if
one exists), thereby giving the notice-filer a chance to correct the erroneous information before
service. The feasibility of additional functionalities, such as allowing users to serve the notice on
authenticated grantees (for example, those grantees who have used the ECS to record the transfer
and/or registered the work, and opted in for service in this manner), could be considered further
down the line. In short, the integration of a fillable form into the ECS has a lot of potential to
make the recordation of termination notices more efficient. The Office, however, should make it
conspicuously clear at all times that using the form to generate and serve a notice does not
guarantee recordation, and that ultimately the notice-filer is responsible for locating, entering, and
verifying the accuracy of the information contained in the notice of termination.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

PG found a lot of good changes described in the original proposal. The AG’s support for the Copyright Office to prepare a template of the form necessary would also speed up the job of creating a form that included all the requisite elements required under the law.

Attorneys that do a lot of this sort of work (well, there are not actually a lot of authors or heirs of authors who know about their right to terminate, so, compared to the number of publishing contracts signed, the number of notices of termination of those contracts are miniscule) have developed (or copied) form templates that address all the current requirements.

But, providing an online form template would allow more authors to do the job themselves and/or cost authors less because more attorneys would be able to provide assistance in filling out the forms.

There are a number of IP/Copyright/Publishing attorneys who visit TPV on a regular basis. PG encourages any of them who have thoughts about this topic to share them in the comments.

PG has written about the statutory rights of authors to terminate publishing agreements they have signed on several occasions, the first time in 2011. Here’s a link to a general explanation of the process and requirements. Basically, for publishing contracts executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978, the right to terminate opens 35 years after a publishing contract was signed (or, more commonly for book contracts, 35 years after the date of first publication) and continues for five years thereafter.

There are some other elements and exceptions, but the gist for most authors of books is the option to terminate starts 35 years after first publication and extends for 5 years to 40 years after first publication.

Under its current rules, everything the author does and every document Copyright Office needs to receive needs to be perfect or made perfect before the 40-year closing of the window. Among other changes, the proposed rules allow the author (or red-faced attorney for author) to make an effective filing, even with some relatively small errors, before the window closes, then fix fix the errors thereafter.

For the math-impaired, 2020 minus 35 is 1985.

1985 New York Times Bestsellers included:

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, by Tom Clancy

THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, by John Irving

CHAPTERHOUSE: DUNE, by Frank Herbert

TEXAS, by James A. Michener

LONESOME DOVE, by Larry McMurtry

SECRETS, by Danielle Steel

FAMILY ALBUM, by Danielle Steel

LUCKY, by Jackie Collins

PROOF, by Dick Francis

THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS, by Jean M. Auel

LAKE WOBEGON DAYS, by Garrison Keillor

THE TALISMAN, by Stephen King and Peter Straub

THINNER, by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

CONTACT, by Carl Sagan

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, by Anne Tyler

THE VAMPIRE LESTAT, by Anne Rice

MEXICO SET, by Len Deighton

IF TOMORROW COMES, by Sidney Sheldon

MINDBEND, by Robin Cook

THE SICILIAN, by Mario Puzo

A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC, by Shel Silverstein

SON OF THE MORNING STAR, by Evan S. Connell

LOVING EACH OTHER, by Leo Buscaglia

MOSES THE KITTEN, by James Herriot

Books Published in 1985 that were not bestsellers in that year:

THE HANDMAID’S TALE, by Margaret Atwood

ENDER’S GAME, by Orson Scott Card

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, by Anne Tyler

IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE, by Laura Joffe Numeroff

SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL, by Patricia MacLachlan

2 thoughts on “Creator Groups Respond to Copyright Office’s Proposed Rule Changes to Ease Notice of Termination Requirements”

  1. The main change that needs to be made concerns the deadlock problem. Unfortunately, the maroons who actually drafted the language of the 1976 Act (and later amendments) virtually guaranteed deadlock when an author dies with a second (or later) wife, but had one or more children from the first marriage (or even out of marriage, although I haven’t seen that one… yet). The problem is that the surviving spouse gets Lear’s share of Cordelia’s love: Exactly half. The surviving children (and their children or surviving spouses) get her husband’s: Exactly half, per stirpes (divided evenly by the number of children, so grandchildren might not have equal shares). Which necessarily means that if the surviving spouse is opposed to the children, there’s a 50/50 division… and the statute requires a majority to issue a termination. So all a wicked publisher need do is foment that division for five years (the termination decisional window) and it’s safe! Safe forever! <sarcasm> But no publisher, or film company, would ever do that. OK, no publisher, or film company, would get caught doing that and leave admissible evidence of it — it would at least use a monkey’s paw. </sarcasm>

    This gets really hairy, really fast, and there is considerable room to disagree in good faith on the proper interpretation of how these things go. Where there is no room for interpretation, though, is that the estate-planning bar can just butt out: These rights pass by statute, and no estate plan can alter them. (It’s even uncertain that if an author passes her copyrights to a holding company, whether the holding company can assert termination rights.)

    Any form developed needs to make crystal clear, right on the form, exactly what share of termination rights is being asserted, by whom, and on what basis under § 203 (or (§ 304(c) for older works, and the AG’s letter is slightly misleading about which works fall under § 304(c)… because there’s a statutory lacuna). Unfortunately, there isn’t such direction as of yet.

    And I’m going to pick nits with the list PG provided of 1985 works. If there is a later transfer of rights for 1976 Act works, that both resets the clock and buries the derivatives. The Hunt for Red October is a prime example: The later publication and film deals would not be affected. There’s also a special exclusion for derivative works (like films) that allows them to be distributed until their own contracts run out, meaning that the film version of Lonesome Dove can continue to be sold in whatever form and licensed for broadcast/distribution in whatever form until its own contract runs out (which it usually doesn’t, ever).

    Let’s just say I was being generous when I said “maroons” in the first paragraph, ok? The only real winners are… the lawyers.

    • Excellent points, all, CE.

      However, I don’t mind if lawyers are winners, so long as clients are the big winners. Definitely, not always the case, however.

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