Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Others May Regain Control of Copyrights

Obscure legal provision could cause big trouble for record labels

August 15, 2011 4:45 PM ET
Bruce springtsteen
Bruce Springsteen
Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and several other artists may soon be able to reclaim ownership of some of their best-selling albums thanks to an obscure provision in copyright law, according to the New York Times. As it turns out, when copyright law was revised in the mid-Seventies, artists were granted "termination rights," which would give them the right to take back control of their works after 35 years as long as they applied for it two years in advance.

Albums and singles released in 1978 will be the first wave of recordings subject to this rule. Several artists, including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Loretta Lynn, Tom Waits and Bryan Adams, have already filed to reclaim qualifying works, according to records at the United States Copyright Office.

Photos: The Vintage Bruce Springsteen Photographs
Though this opportunity is very good news for artists who have long taken only a portion of the overall cut of profits generated from their masters, this is potentially catastrophic for the labels. In a struggling recording industry, sales from catalog items have provided a reliable source of low-overhead revenue.

Photos: The Evolution of Bob Dylan
All four major record companies – Universal, EMI, Warner and Sony BMG – have already made it clear that they will not give up the recordings without a major legal battle. Steven Marks, a lobbyist for the Recording Industry Association of America, told the New York Times that his organization believes that "the termination right doesn't apply to most sound recordings" and that master recordings were made for the labels strictly as "works for hire." The labels are likely to cling to this reasoning if they are forced into a court case in 2013.

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