Thursday, April 29, 2021

How Do I Terminate a Book Contract?

Copyright termination rights are extremely valuable and often overlooked.  While you can use the Copyright Act to escape your contract, most statutory notices of termination (a highly technical document) are a prelude to a renegotiation.  That is, upon sweetening of the pot (e.g., a further advance, improved royalties) most authors will re-up with their publisher partner, albeit on much improved terms.  

 Once a contract has been signed, it typically cannot be changed unless all parties to the contract agree to the modifications.  Not so with contracts (e.g., book publishing agreements, film option agreements) in the publishing and entertainment industries.  While a copyright assignment or license may purport to give a publisher or producer the exclusive right to an author’s copyright for the life of the copyright, in reality, their hold on the copyright is much more tenuous.  

A 1976 amendment to the Copyright Act allows authors to terminate copyright grants, which includes assignments and licenses, 35-years after initial publication, provided authors (or their heirs) send properly drafted notices of termination and duly record them with the Copyright Office.  Calculating the notice and recapture dates is the author’s sole responsibility.  Don't try this at home.  Seek professional help. 


The premise is that when these older contracts were signed, the author had little or no negotiation power. When the Beatles signed their first contract, Paul and George were both minors.  Little Richard reportedly sold the music publishing rights to Tutti Fruiti to Specialty Records for $50.00.  That was the driver for Congress giving authors a copyright termination right.  This right cannot be waived.  With the exception of work for hire agreements, this powerful “re-valuation” mechanism trumps written agreements which state they are in perpetuity. 

The opportunity to terminate or renegotiate a copyright grant comes around just once, which is unfortunate for authors as the rules governing termination are dense.  They can also be unforgiving.   

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