Live Long Enough, Get Your Copyright Back: Paul McCartney’s Story

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Many musicians and other creative artists have signed away what later became very valuable copyrights for next to nothing because they weren’t famous at the time. For example, back in 1938 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed over the rights to Superman to DC Comics for $130 and a promise of the possibility of future work.

And sometimes artists just get screwed. That’s what happened to Paul McCartney: Northern Songs, a company created by the Beatles along with their manager and outside investors, owned the copyrights to the Beatles’ library — with most of the songs written by McCartney and John Lennon. In 1969 the investors sold the company to British company ATV without even consulting with Lennon and McCartney. McCartney was incensed that he had lost control of his own creative works.

US Copyright Law has changed over the years, and those changes both extended the duration of copyrights and have created opportunities for artists to reclaim their copyrights.

Read the full text of the law relating to duration of copyright here. But reading it may leave your head spinning. A simplified summary follows.

Duration of Copyright

There was a very big change in the duration of copyright that took effect on January 1, 1978. Prior to 1978, copyrights were good for 28 years, and could be renewed for an additional 28 years, for a total of 56 years.

Works created after 1978 are generally protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Anonymous, pseudonymous, and works for hire are protected for 95 years.

When the copyright for new works was extended, copyright for older works was also extended; copyrights from prior to 1978 are now also good for 95 years.

Termination of Transfer of Copyright

For works created after 1978, there is a five-year window, 35 to 40 years after the copyright grant, when the creator can “reclaim” his copyright from someone he transferred it to.

For works created before 1978 there are two windows: one at 56 years and one at 75 years.

The time frames mentioned here are simplifications for discussion purposes; the actual duration of a copyright and the window for terminating a transfer can also be effected by other factors such as when the work was first created versus first published.

There are also very specific rules regarding the timing when a notice of termination must be served to someone who currently owns a copyright. If you are the creator of a copyrighted work and want to reclaim your copyright with a notice of termination, you would be well-advised to consult with an attorney.

McCartney Reclaiming His Copyrights

As reported in Billboard, McCartney has 33 songs that are eligible for termination of transfer in 2018, including hits such as Back in the USSR, Blackbird, Hey Jude, Lady Madonna, Revolution, and Yellow Submarine. He has filed timely notices of termination with ATV, now owned by Sony; in 2018 when he’ll be 75 years old, McCartney will start getting the rights to some of his music back.

Live long enough and you too can get your copyrights back.

(Social Media Photo Credit: “Sir James Paul McCartney – Out There Concert | 140420-5965-jikatu” by Jimmy Baikovicius is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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