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Music Beat

January 19, 2013

Figuring who owns a 1978 recording can be complicated

For most of us, the start of a new year is a time for reflection on the past and planning for the future. For the music industry, this new year of 2013 provides a dramatic scenario that may change the fortunes of some of the most famous recording artists and record companies in the world.

Who are some of the famous recording artists and albums in this drama? 

Billy Joel’s album “52nd Street,” released in 1978, sold more than 7 million copies. 

Van Halen’s album “Van Halen,” released in 1978, sold more than 10 million copies.   

Both these artists were signed to contracts in the 1970s specifying that their record companies owned these hit recordings. Why are these and other artists now saying that the record companies may no longer own them?

The answer to this question lies in the United States copyright law. In 1976, the copyright law was updated to say that authors and composers who granted ownership of their original works, such as their songs, to someone else could regain ownership of their music 35 years after the grant had been made. If the author is no longer alive, the law specifies which heirs have the right to re-capture ownership. 

That 1976 law became effective in 1978.  Thirty-five years after 1978 is the year we are just entering, that is, 2013.

If, however, the song was written or the recording was made as a “work for hire,” there is no possibility to re-capture that work. The laws governing ownership of these recordings will affect anyone whose album was released in 1978 or later.   

What is a “work for hire”? According to section 101 of the copyright law, a work for hire is an original work created by an employee within the scope of his employment. If there is no employer/employee relationship, a work for hire might also be one of several categories of works listed in the law, if there’s a written agreement that the work has been made for hire. For this reason, if there is a written agreement between the artist and the record company that the recording was created as a work for hire, the record company says that it owns the recording of the song from the moment the recording was made.   

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