Starting in two years, the rights to classic albums by some of rock's biggest acts, including Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, Billy Joel's 52nd Street and the Eagles' The Long Run, could revert back to those artists. The change threatens to upend the music business – putting more cash in musicians' pockets and less in those of the labels. "It's something I've thought about on and off for a while, and it got put on the back burner because it wasn't timely," says Eagles singer and drummer Don Henley, who founded the Recording Artists Coalition, which advocates for artists' rights. "And now the time has come."
In 1976, U.S. copyright law was amended to give artists the right to regain the rights to their work after 35 years. The first batch of albums, those created on or after January 1st, 1978, become eligible for so-called "termination rights" from the record companies in 2013. Henley says the Eagles have not yet filed termination paperwork but are considering their options. "It's very simple," he says. "We created these records, we paid for them. I want to pass those things along to my children. It's part of their heritage."
Musicians granted the rights to their master tapes would be able to license their music for advertising, sell it to another label or distribute it themselves digitally via iTunes. Tom Waits has filed for the rights to three of his albums, Blue Valentine, Heartattack and Vine and One From the Heart. Steven Greenberg, writer and producer of Lipps Inc.'s 1980 disco hit "Funkytown," applied in 2006. "Thirty-five years is long enough for the majors to milk a record," says Greenberg. "It's time to give it back to the owners. Plus, it's the law."
For artists who are struggling financially, it's hard to know how much impact the law will have. "If you're talking about an album that only sells 10 to 15,000 copies a year, that's about $20,000," says one attorney. "But over the course of 20 years, you could be talking real money."
But labels, which have become increasingly reliant on back-catalog sales, could be hit hard: At one of the four majors, catalog constitutes an astonishing 90 percent of recorded-music sales, according to a source. (Sales of digital back-catalog albums in 2010 rose 12 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)
Artists who still record for their original labels may refrain from filing for termination because they're wary of poisoning their relationship. But those who do file will likely see their cases fiercely contested in court. The legal wording for when a work was conceived and executed is vague, and a "majority" consent of a band would be required. Sources say the labels will also claim the artists were "work for hire," meaning the labels own the rights in perpetuity. "Anyone who's worked at a major record company has seen this coming for a decade," says David Carson, general counsel of the U.S. Copyright Office. "It's hard to predict which way it will go."
Artists and labels are both bracing themselves for a long period of litigation. "We're just at the beginning of this," says Copyright Office administrator George Thuronyi. Adds Henley, "Having dealt with record companies for over 40 years, I know nothing's easy with them. But it would mean a great deal to us and our heirs. The future ain't what it used to be, as someone once said."
This story is from the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.