The following blog post is reprinted with permission from the blog of Leslie A. Burgk, Esq,
February 6th, 2009
If your client’s estate plan overlooks the right to terminate contracts and recapture copyrights, it could cost your client’s heirs significant future income. Let’s take for example that you have a client who wrote a children’s book and signed a publishing contract in 1965. The copyright was secured that same year and your client transferred all his interest in the copyright to the publisher. For estate purposes, you may be thinking there is nothing there of value except for any income that your client is receiving and may continue to receive after his death pursuant to the contract terms. If the thought crossed your mind, you are likely overlooking a very important right that could be costly to your client and his heirs.
Under the Copyright Act of 1976, the author, or if deceased, the author’s widow or widower and children or grandchildren may terminate all transfers or licenses of the renewal copyright or any right under it (for pre-1978 copyrights) at the end of 56 years from the date the copyright was originally secured and recapture the last 39 years of copyright protection (*provided the contract was executed prior to January 1, 1978 and timely notice of termination is provided*). Congress made the right of termination inalienable. Therefore, any contract terms to the contrary have no effect.
In your client’s case, the 56th year is 2021 and the copyright in his work extends until 2060. Therefore, there is the possibility that his heirs may acquire the right to terminate the contract and recapture the copyright. If the estate documents are silent regarding this right, the heirs may miss the opportunity. If they are aware of the right, they could renegotiate the contract or take back the copyright and the exploit the work themselves or enter into more lucrative contracts thereby taking advantage of the termination right to derive more income from the work’s copyright.
If the opportunity to terminate and recapture is missed, there is another chance to recapture the copyright for the last 20 years of protection (* if timely notice is provided*); however, your client or his heirs will lose the benefit of potential income derived from exploiting the copyright in the work during those 19 years between the 56th year and the 75th year of protection.
Also Beware of Traps: There is a limited window of opportunity to terminate and the *notice* requirements are highly technical. There are also traps, such as the right to terminate does not apply to works-for-hire and the right of termination for post-1977 works is different. Therefore, if you are dealing with this issue with regard to any works protected by copyright (not just pre-1978 literary works as described above) make sure that you have thoroughly researched all the requirements, including the notice requirements and have planned accordingly, or contact an attorney who is familiar with this area of law.