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Prince‬ Ahead Of His Time On Many Things Including His Business Dealings And Copyright Terminations 

Just a few years ago the headlines in the music business trades were touting the story that Prince had returned to Warner Brothers Records after 18 years with a revolutionary new deal that would see him regain ownership of his back catalog of recordings. As with all things Prince, it was cutting edge. This Prince/Warner Brothers deal marked a new era as the ability to terminate master recording copyright after 35 years was granted in the Copyright Revision Act of 1976 and became effective in 1978, the year that Prince’s debut album came out. 

It seems that just as the record business has been staggering back to its feet after the digital assault started by Napster over a decade ago, another hard blow to the record industry business model is starting to have ripple effects. Recording artists and songwriters from 1978 and after are now entitled to start terminating their contractual transfers and demanding back their copyrights. The 1976 Copyright Act, in a provision that has generally been overlooked until now, provides for the termination of copyright transfers. Even if an artist or songwriter signed a contract with a record company or music publisher that purports to transfer all rights in a work in perpetuity, the Copyright Act provides that the author can terminate that grant and demand that the rights revert to the author in a shorter period of time. This is a great opportunity for artists and songwriters to get a second bite at the apple, so to speak, and get a better share of the income earned from their creative works. 

Prince was on top of his game. Generally speaking, for copyright grants made on or after January 1, 1978 (the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act) the termination period is 35 years under Section 203 of the Copyright Act. For pre-1978 works the termination period is 56 years after copyright was originally secured under Section 304. For grants on or after 1978, termination may be exercised anytime during a 5 year period beginning at the end of 35 years from the execution of the grant or, if the grant concerns the right of publication of the work, then the period begins on the sooner of 35 years after publication or 40 years after execution of the grant. Although there are certain formalities which must be complied with to effectuate transfer, this essentially means that recording artists and songwriters can start exercising their right of termination as soon as 2013 – which may effectively decimate many record company and music publishing catalogs.  

Back when the 1976 Copyright Act was drafted few could envision a world where the artists might not need the record companies to finance, manufacture, promote, store and distribute their records. Back then the expectation was that, although any particular artist could exercise the termination right, what would effectively happen is that the label and artist would simply be forced to renegotiate a deal to continue working together. Now in the digital age, however, this is no longer true. Any artist can demand back their masters and then simply offer them on their own website or license the rights to an online aggregator with little or no expense. This is particularly true in the case of catalog recordings since the artist would not even need the record company to finance the recording costs. The more digital the music business becomes the more obsolete the large record labels become for established artists. High profile artists with already established fan bases and large catalogs such as Prince, Blondie, the Cars, Bruce Springsteen and others probably have no need for much in the way of advertising and marketing of their recordings, and certainly no need for manufacturing, distributing or warehousing of the product. Simple ownership and possession of the digitized masters would be sufficient.

There is one scenario that does bode well for record companies in that it may steer even established artists to follow the renegotiation route as Prince has done. Those familiar with record contracts know that, unlike song publishing contracts which generally provide for the assignment and transfer of a song copyright to the publisher, most record contracts provide that the sound recording is created as a “work for hire” for the record label. Under the 1976 Copyright Act the termination provision is not applicable to a genuine work for hire grant. However, this does not preclude recording artists from exercising their right of termination. Just a few years ago I litigated a case where the Court held that a sound recording does not qualify as a work for hire. Without getting into all the applicable legal employer/employee issues involved, there is a great deal of case law which addresses the subject of “work for hire” and holds that whether a work created by an employee is a work for hire or not depends on various factors other than just the language of the contract. This area of law is ripe for litigation by recording artists who want to exercise their termination rights where the facts suggest that no genuine work for hire relationship ever existed. Although the landmark case has yet to be fought, from what I have seen it appears that in most cases the artist would prevail over the record company on this point. However, artist like Prince as well as label executives have also realized that the wiser course may be to negotiate the reversions and retain control of issuing artists’ catalog eligible for copyright terminations.

The termination rights of an artist or songwriter are generally subject to a 5 year window. Termination must be made effective within the termination window or the right to terminate the grant is forfeited. To be effective, the artist or songwriter must serve a written notice of termination on the original record company or publisher (or its successor) no more than 10 and no less than 2 years prior to the effective date stated in the notice. The notice of termination must state the effective date of termination. Perfection of the termination requires that a copy of the written notice also be filed with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the effective date of termination

Although the termination rights of an artist under the 1976 Copyright Act would only be effective for the U.S. territory, the size of the U.S. consumer market for recorded music still makes this a valuable right to reclaim. However, what is good for the artist might further erode the influence of the major record labels and prove detrimental to the industry in the future, so labels would be well advised to start planning for the onslaught and try to forge deals like Prince has done with Warner Brothers.    

Wallace Collins is a New York lawyer specializing in entertainment, copyright, trademark and internet law. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham LawSchool. T:(212) 661-3656 /


8 Reasons To Enter A Band Competition

Band contests don’t pay, but can be useful if they fit in your plan to invest in your band.

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New Lyrics Writing Software Helps Songwriters Brainstorm Ideas

Being an original, independant poet and artist can be difficult at times. The top musicians often have their songs written for them by professional songwriters.

A new software brings this power to the indie artist.

It’s called Brainstorm Pro and it’s available at

In addition to being up to 20x faster than regular thesauruses it has a built in rhyme engine and other features to find the best words faster.

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How NASA Overcomes Procrastination

One of the hardest things to do when accomplishing anything is remaining consistent. It’s not something anyone teaches us, but instead expects from us. Doing something over and over again is something that we are good at physically, but not mentally. Our natural tendency is to overthink anything because that is what our brains have evolved to in order to …

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The Semantics Of Success

Ah, success. Well, what exactly is that? Depending on who you ask, the answer would surely vary. Or at least vary to some extent. Some would undoubtedly answer, that fame and fortune is the measure of success. Maybe even most people would give some version of that answer. But that, by no means, is the only definition of success. It would be hard, if not impossible, to discredit the fortune aspect of that answer.

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Industry Veteran David Greenberg Joins Music Works International

Boston, MA USA (04/04/2016) — David Greenberg was appointed Director of Marketing/Development for Music Works International, a boutique music agency headed by Katherine McVicker.

In his new role, Greenberg will develop and implement global strategies to benefit artist development, long-term brand building and revenue growth; including deep research of cross-interest opportunities, energizing the increase of the agency’s profile worldwide, and investigating and implementing strategies to build upon the agency’s market share.

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How To Get Your First Gig In Half The Time Using These 3 Steps

Getting yourself out there is something that happens over time.

You don’t wake up as a musician, brush your teeth and go play a show. There are usually a few more steps involved before that, like finding other musicians to play with, or even just knowing how to be prepared for your first gig before you even get it.

Today we’ll be talking about how to go about landing your first gig, and in the $1,000 Musician fashion we’ll be doing it as efficiently as possible.

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None Of Your Business

Copying what other artists are doing is a common problem I often encounter when talking to artists. They have identified a few artists who appears to be active or doing well so they copy them. They do what gigs they are doing, copy what blogs they are featured on and release content with the same frequency as them. They will even go a far to match their follower count through promotion or unsolicited means.

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The Real World vs The Internet

I visited this seminar recently run by a music professional. He explained quite an elaborate picture of the music business but one thing didn’t sit quite right with me. He said “to make it in this business you have to get out in the real world. You can have some success on the internet but eventually you will find yourself having to embrace the real world to progress.”

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Abbey Road Upgrades On-line Mastering & Mixing Services

London’s world-famous recording complex Abbey Road is launching new, improved on-line mastering and mixing services with a completely rebuilt, more elegant file-sharing interface that allows users to send and receive tracks more easily. The result is a faster, thoroughly modern service allowing musicians around the globe easier access to the studio’s world-class equipment and internationally renowned team of engineers, with feedback and communication between customers and engineers at the heart of the experience.

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Hashtag Hustle: How To Leverage Social Media To Maximize Sync Potential

For artists, bands, composers, and producers, there’s no comprehensive walkthrough on how to use social media to maximize the return on sync placements (trust us, we looked!); so, we sat down and wrote one for our artist community to use and share.

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Stage Right: Themes And Life Lessons Learned From The Stage 

The stage has been home to countless works of art, passion, philosophy, beauty, religion and creativity. Although the plot and characters change with each production, one thing is consistent and has been since the early days of Greek tragedies: The stage offers poignant life lessons to musicians, actors, performers and audience members. Here are three thematic stage productions that offer modern life lessons to us all.

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Keeping A Pulse On The New Music Ecosystem

As a music fan today, I’m introduced to new music every week. I have what at times feels like almost personal access to my favorite artists; ranging from scintillating personal thoughts and pictures (Instagram, Twitter) to inspired support of an album’s production (PledgeMusic).

For listening to music, the physical to digital shift has given way to an abundance of platforms from which to discover, purchase, and share music. Chances are that if we met at one of our industry’s many events, we’d end up discussing the variety of streaming services that are available. I’d ask ‘what service do you use?’ to which you may confess no particular allegiance to one, rather, that you use more than one depending on the situation.  Many people (including myself) would probably answer this way.

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The Songwriter’s Support System: A Resource Guide

As a songwriter, it’s tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re a lone wolf; a struggling, solitary artist with nowhere to turn to for help.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. You’re not alone in this, and in fact, with a little digging it’s plain to see that there are a handful of wonderful resources and organizations available to support artists of all stripes. Whether you’re just beginning your career, or on the threshold of something great – our blog will give you an overview of key groups and programs that act as a saving grace for songwriters across the UK, US, and Canada.

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