Bracing for the Copyright Cliff

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The coming year is a big one for artists whose work was published in 1978. A revision to copyright law allows musicians, authors, or any copyright holders to reclaim their rights after 35 years. For the already-struggling music industry, this could be a lethal blow, or what Kurt Andersen calls the "copyright cliff."

In 1976, Congress passed a new copyright law with a "termination clause" that took effect in 1978. "The legislative intent was to give artists an opportunity to negotiate after the value of the work has been realized," explains entertainment lawyer Lita Rosario, who is filing termination claims for members of Parliament-Funkadelic, including George Clinton.

But copyright holders are bracing for battle, especially in the music industry, where millions or billions of dollars are at stake. Artists like Bruce Springsteen, Styx, Billy Joel, and The Eagles will most likely file paperwork to reclaim rights next year. Rosario, who represents artists, acknowledges that old albums and best-ofs generate far more revenue for the labels than do new releases. "It's not going to mean the end of the record labels,” she says, “but they're going to have to figure something out for sure. It's another factor that's going to go into how this industry is reshaped."

Consumers may not notice the change in rights, but they may start hearing more songs from the late ‘70s popping up in movies, TV, and online. "Recording artists are much more likely to let businesses get access to their music," Rosario says. "The major labels and major publishers are much more restrictive about that."

→ Do you think it's fair that after 35 years, musicians and other artists get their copyrights back from the companies that bought them?
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Music Playlist

  1. Pump It Up

    Artist: Elvis Costello
    Album: This Year's Model
    Label: Hip-O Records
  2. The Promised Land

    Artist: Bruce Springsteen
    Album: The Essential Bruce Springsteen
    Label: Columbia
  3. Because the Night

    Artist: Patti Smith Group
    Album: Easter
    Label: Arista
  4. Shattered

    Artist: The Rolling Stones
    Album: Some Girls
    Label: UME
  5. Flashlight

    Artist: Parliament
    Album: Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome
    Label: Island / Mercury
  6. Super Stupid

    Artist: Funkadelic
    Album: Maggot Brain
    Label: Westbound Records Inc.