This Article Originally Published October 1999
by Donald S. Passman
Smile whenever you hear the words Reversion of Copyright, because that will always be good for you (unless you're a publisher, in which case you can frown). This is different from the termination of Copyrights under the Copyright Law, because reversion is a contractual provision, negotiated specifically. It means that the publisher must give your song (copyright and all) back to you at some point in the future.
Conditions of Reversion
What should trigger reassignment? The best is that the song should revert back to you if it's not recorded and commercially released. If you really have bargaining power, you can say you get the song back unless the recording is by a major artist (or at least someone on a major label) and/or achieves a certain chart position (say Top 50). The publisher, of course, cannot guarantee you success; It can only agree to give back your song if it doesn't hit the target.
In these clauses, be sure to require that the recording/release must happen within some time frame. Otherwise, the publisher can keep each song for the life of the copyright, telling you every week that a recording is just around the corner. If it's a single-song agreement rather than a term deal, the publisher customarily has from six months to two years after signing within which to get the song recorded and released.
Try to break this into two parts--it must be recorded within six months (or twelve months) after signing the deal, and released within six months (or twelve months) after that. This is better for you, because it comes back sooner if nothing happens. For term deals, this period usually begins at the close of the deal, although songs delivered in the later years sometimes have longer time periods (because the publisher hasn't had time to work them.) A typical provision is one or two years after the end of the deal, but no less than two or three years from the delivery of a song.
The smaller your bargaining power, the less likely you'll be able to pull off a reversion. However, even at the most modest levels, you should be able to get a publisher to give your song back at some point (say four or five years after the term) if it hasn't been exploited. The theory is that the song is of no value to him or her on the shelf, but potentially could be to you in a new situation. This gets more difficult if the publisher has paid you an advance, particularly one that hasn't been recouped (which is probable if the song is unexploited). However, you may still be able to negotiate an option to get the song back by repaying the advance. Be sure to say you don't have to repay an advance that has already been recouped. The publisher will want to put a time limit on this right to repay (say a year or two after the first date the song can revert), but even with this limit, the option is a plus.
Be certain it's your option to pay the money back. You don't want to be obligated to buy back your losers, because all that does is guarantee the publisher against a loss.
Reversion of copyright for non-exploitation is something you should always ask for. You may not always get it, but you should always ask for it. Is it clear I mean always? Did I say always?
When you move into the super leagues, you can ask for a reassignment of all compositions, whether or not they're recorded. Time frames on these usually run something like seven to ten years after the close of the exclusive term, and it is usually also tied to recoupment--in other words, after the ten years, the publisher has to reassign only if you're recouped. In this case, (1) take the right to repay the unrecouped balance in which case you get the songs back sooner, and (2) be sure you get the songs back if and when you eventually do recoup, even if it's five or ten years later. Don't assume the contract will say either of these if you don't ask, because it usually won't.