Length of Ownership -- Music

Why "35+ Years"?

Many of the music royalty listings on Royalty Exchange list the length of ownership for investors as “35+ Years”. This is because a US copyright holder is able to reclaim some assigned rights after 35 years. Only US rights may be reclaimed; international rights cannot be reclaimed and therefore can last 70 years after the death of an author. Read on to learn more about copyright reclamation and length of ownership.

Music Copyrights

Most recorded music in the US is subject to dual copyrights -- one copyright for a song (lyrics, melody) and one copyright for a recording of a song. The length of ownership for a song copyright depends on whether the song was copyrighted before or after 1978. If a song was copyrighted in or after 1978, the copyright is valid for the life of the author plus 70 years. For more information about copyrights, visit our guide to Copyrights. For more information about copyrights as they pertain to the music industry, visit our guide to Music Royalties.

Pre-1978 Works

The following is quoted from Alter and Kendrick's Guide to Copyright Duration: "Works created and copyrighted (that is, registered or published) prior to January 1, 1978, are protected for 95 years from the date the copyright was originally secured (95 years from the earlier of the registration or publication). The 95-year period is divided into an initial term of 28 years and a renewal term of 67 years.1 Works created prior to January 1, 1978, that were neither copyrighted nor fell into the public domain before that date are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years, provided (i) in no event shall the term of the copyright in such a work expire before December 31, 2002, and (ii) if such a work is published on or before December 31, 2002, the term of the copyright shall not expire before December 31, 2047.

Works registered for copyright or published prior to January 1, 1923, are in the public domain in the United States."1

Post-1977 Works

The following is quoted from Alter and Kendrick's Guide to Copyright Duration: "Works created on or after January 1, 1978, are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. In the case of a joint work, protection continues for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author."1 Works made for hire (i.e. music made for television or film soundtracks), pseudonymous works and anonymous works are exceptions and last for the shortest of either 95 years following a work's publication or 120 years following a work's creation.

Copyright Reclamation

A US Copyright becomes eligible for rights reclamation 35 years after it is assigned to another entity (56 years for copyrights granted before 1978). This gives a songwriter or an estate the option of reclaiming the copyrights they've assigned to others. Copyright reclamation is only applicable to domestic rights, so foreign royalties aren't reclaimable.

Copyright reclamation will only apply if the songwriter or estate applies for recapture following the guidelines outlined by the copyright laws, which include filing for reclamation within a designated five-year window and notifying assignees of reclamation a minimum of two years in advance of the effective reclamation date. Copyright reclamation is possible even if an assignment contract explicitly prohibits it, as the federal statute overrides contracts -- this is true of both pre- and post-1978 copyrights. The right to reclamation does not apply to works made for hire.

For more information on copyright reclamation, refer to Alter & Kendrick's guide to Pre-1978 Copyright Reclamation and Post-1978 Copyright Reclamation.

  1Copyright © 2012 by Lisa A. Alter, All Rights Reserved.