Good News For Old Bands?
Band Photo: Black Sabbath (?)
Let’s go back to 1978: Black Sabbath released “Never Say Die!” in September of that year. There’s another thing that happened in the world that wasn't nearly as unconventionally cool, but that Black Sabbath might find really cool 35 years later. In the United States, a massive piece of government legislation went into effect called the Copyright Act of 1976. Before I tell you why that has any meaning at all to the godfathers of heavy metal and other bands from 1978 on, I’ll give you a rundown of what copyrights are.
A song isn’t just useful for banging your head to or for inspiring thought. A song is a piece of intellectual property, and just like the Gibson SG guitars Tony Iommi uses to both advance the metal genre and wow people into buying, songwriters can use their creations to get business and further the world of art.
In the United States, when you write a song and you put it in a “fixed medium,” like writing it down on paper or recording the music, the United States says you have a copyright in that song, which allows you to claim it as yours and control it for a period of time.
In this Copyright Act, all copyrights from January 1st, 1978 onward were given “termination rights” unless they were “works made for hire.” When most bands join a record label, they give the label a portion of their rights so that the label can choose what to do with their songs and act on it.
However, these “termination rights” now allowed them to file to get their rights back from the label after 35 years. This is what’s good for Black Sabbath. As long as they file for termination two years before they want them back, they might be able to get them back and own their songs entirely again.
Here’s the thing, though – While under contract with a label, are you considered an employee of the label, hired to make songs? That’s the big question, because the answer will determine if you get your shit back or not.
Let’s take Ozzy for example. If he is legally considered an employee of the label, the songs he writes while with the label will be called “works made for hire,” and owned entirely by the label. If he’s not, then he could be considered an independent contractor for the label. If the label owns the song, then Ozzy has no chance of getting the songs back.
This year, copyright holders with copyrights from 1978 are eligible to file to get their songs back in 2013. A few big names already have, but most of the major labels aren’t having it and are sticking to their guns that the songs are ineligible as works made for hire.
It’s up to lawyers to figure this all out at some point, because the labels don’t look like they want to settle out of court over this right now. On one hand, if the labels win, things will stay the same and the songwriters will only see their cut of the money from their recordings. On the other hand, if the writers win, they’ll be able to do what they want with full creative control of their recordings and they’ll be seeing more money out of it.
It’s a fight for control – Who should rightfully own a song? What do you think will come of this, since more and more bands will have the option to get their rights back each year after this? Will the major labels lose one more foothold in a business that’s quickly abandoning them in favor of independents?
Personally, I hope the writers win this one. A lot of music business fat cats have been riding high on dough from writers that aren't even associated with their labels anymore. A lot of times, labels will put out "Best Of" albums, without the writer's consent, leeching off of the band's popularity even though the band is no longer associated with the label. Sure, the band sees some money from this as well, but how much? Not as much as the label.
The good thing for us loyal metal fans is that this doesn’t affect us one bit. We’ll be getting what we want and how we want it from the place we want it from, because we have the power to buy or not buy something and businesses have to adapt to that. What’s in question here is who is going to get it to us.
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