These so-called “termination rights,” which let authors break contracts after 35 years, have already made the media thanks to a court squabble between the Village People and music studios. On the book front, publishers and agents are staying mostly mum even though the bestseller lists from 1978 reveal some very big names eligible to reclaim their work – Stephen King, Judy Blume, John LeCarre and so on. Here’s a plain English overview of how the law works and why (for now at least) we’re likely to see literary types negotiate rather than litigate.
The law in question is Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act which allows authors to cut away any contract after 35 years. Congress put it in place to protect young artists who signed away future best sellers for a pittance.
“People have had 2013 circled on their calendar for a while,” said Andrew Bart, a copyright lawyer at Jenner & Block, in a phone interview.
Termination rights are not a new idea and have been the subject of famous court cases involving John Steinbeck, Lassie and Superman. The difference is that these older cases are based on a pre-1978 law that often required an author to exercise renewal rights which, in many cases, the author had signed away.
The new law has fewer such loopholes and will also mean that what has been a drip-drip of old copyright cases could turn into a flood as nearly every book published after 1978 becomes eligible for termination.
The 1978 law also means a threat to the back list of titles that are a cash cow for many publishers. The threat is amplified as a result of new digital distribution options for authors that were never conceived when the law was passed — these new options mean authors have more leverage to walk away from their publishers altogether.
Publishers contacted for this story were reluctant to discuss termination rights and several sources said they want to deflect attention from it. That may not be possible for much longer.
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