Manatt Partners Speak to Variety on Legal Challenges of Copyright Act, Section 203

Manatt Partners Speak to Variety on Legal Challenges of Copyright Act, Section 203

"Legal Landmark: Artists Start to Reclaim Rights to Their Music"

April 16, 2013 - Manatt entertainment partners L. Lee Phillips and Eric Custer spoke to Variety about the legal challenges involved with artists opting to go through Section 203 of the Copyright Act to reclaim rights to their music.

Variety reports that on September 13 a portion of the rights to the song Y.M.C.A. by the Village People will pass from its publisher to one of its co-authors and lead singers, Victor Willis. As of yet, Willis is one of the highest-profile artists to reclaim the rights to his music by activating Section 203 of the Copyright Act, which allows authors to take back rights after 35 years, beginning with works released in 1978. Added to the Copyright Act in 1976, the intent of Section 203 was to give authors and artists a second shot at reclaiming rights they assigned earlier in their careers, when they were less likely to have enough leverage over big labels and publishers.

Phillips said that it is "too early to tell" if the provision is fulfilling Congress' intent. Particularly when it comes to master recordings, the law leaves ambiguities. Among them is what exactly defines a "work for hire," which is exempt from rights termination. Other issues include who can terminate and how that termination can be effective, as well as the proper dates to include in any notices. It is complicated given that groups, producers and background musicians may have all contributed to a work.

Custer pointed out that some of the pacts from the late 1970s identify an artist as working "for hire," but in another provision make clear that they are not employees of the label. Moreover, language spelling out that an artist is "for hire" doesn't necessarily negate a termination right; courts will look at how the work was actually performed.

As much as artists have served notices on labels, the record companies have yet to challenge them in court proceedings, including over whether the work is "for hire," but it is still early. "There are tons and tons of masters that don't earn $100 a year," said  Phillips. "They may look at it and say, is it worth fighting for? But if they don't fight it, is it setting a precedent?"

Custer added that there "will (not) be a single day where (labels) could lose rights to 25% of their master catalogs. Instead, it would be a drip, drip, drip, and year by year."

Read the article here.



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