Backlists and the Copyright Law

This article from Publisher’s Weekly is one of the best on explaining what can and cannot be expected with backlists and an author’s rights. To read the complete article, go to

Publishing attorney Lloyd Jassin has been writing and speaking about the termination clause for more than two years. He was a major source for an August 2011 PW story on the clause and what it could mean for the book industry. With the first authors able to opt out of old contracts starting in January 2013, PW asked Jassin for a reminder about the termination provision and how it is triggered.

When the Copyright Act was passed in 1976, little thought was given to the future impact of an esoteric provision that gave individual authors the “option” to terminate book contracts and “recapture control” of their copyrights. This provision was designed to protect against bad deals for authors—and is intended to aid authors who signed contracts with little bargaining power and who were not aware of the potential future value of their work. Accordingly, Congress embedded in the Copyright Act a “reset button” for every post-1977 contract, which, when activated 35 years after a contract was signed, returns ownership and control of the copyright to the author or author’s heirs.

This means that, starting in 2013, authors and their heirs or estates will be able to terminate virtually any publishing contract entered into on or after January 1, 1978. While some authors will use this powerful right to reclaim ownership and control of their books, others will leave their publishing contracts intact, but extract more favorable terms for doing so.

Given that 35-year “reset button,” the first author termination right to vest began taking effect on January 1, 2013. There is, however, a very specific process that must be followed in order for authors to successfully reclaim control of their copyrights. To successfully terminate the copyrights, holders must provide “legally sufficient” termination notices, which need to be sent and recorded. What is meant by legally sufficient? To give a precise summary, you have to know that grants signed after 1977 can be terminated during a five-year window starting 35 years from the date the author-publisher agreement was signed.Since termination notices can go out as early as 10 years before the effective date of termination, or as late as two years prior, notices for 1978 works can be served as late as 2016. To complete the termination, the notice must also be recorded with the Copyright Office. Boring stuff, until you get the big picture.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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