Reversion rights in copyright law are as complex as anything that tax law has to offer. Complex and dry. But currently a hot topic, because of the possibility that rights to sound recordings soon may revert to recording artists. For those who may be interested in the history of copyright reversion, Cambridge law professor Lionel Bently and Columbia law professor Jane Ginsburg have co-authored 'The Sole Right . . . Shall Return to the Authors': Anglo-American Authors' Reversion Rights from the Statute of Anne to Contemporary U.S. Copyright. Their synopsis:
This study of author’s reversion rights begins with the Statute of Anne and the debates that led up to the adoption of section 11, which vested in the author a second fourteen-year term, provided he or she was still alive at the end of the initial fourteen-year term. The study then will address the impact of the author’s reversion right on publishing practice and authors’ welfare in the United Kingdom through the eighteenth century to the demise of the reversion right in 1814. We will suggest that the apparent lack of use of the reversion right by authors in the eighteenth century was a result of a host of factors, including but not limited to the common (but by no means universal) contractual practice which purported to confer on a publisher the entirety of an author’s rights. In addition, we call attention to the multiple and shifting interpretations of what was required by section 11, as well as the social and economic limitations on an author’s capacity to take advantage of the reversion. The second half of this study turns to the law and publishing practices in the United States, where reversion rights have proved more enduring if not always more beneficial to authors. The study concludes that history and practice suggest at best inconsistent achievement of reversonary rights’ aim to offset the author’s weaker bargaining position by assuring her a future opportunity to make a better deal. Legislators might improve the reversion rights regime, but it is not clear that authors’ lots will accordingly ameliorate. Substantive regulation of contracts of transfer, rather than rights to terminate those transfers, may offer the preferable path to ensuring meaningful and effective protection of authors’ interests in reaping the fruits of their intellectual labors.