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Gloria Gaynor joins reversion rights debate at SxSW

By | Published on Friday 16 March 2012

Gloria Gaynor

Talking of potentially devastating (for the majors) copyright law shenanigans, a panel at South By Southwest this week has focused on the other big US music rights debate of the moment – reversion rights.

As previously reported, this dates from a bit of late 1970s American copyright legislation, so has been a long time coming, though the impact of it only fully kicks in next year, so it’s something that’s been discussed in label and legal circles with increased frequency and urgency of late.

The 1978 law says that if a creator assigns copyrights protected under the US system to another party – so a songwriter hands over their copyrights to a music publisher in return for an upfront advance, investment and administration support, and an ongoing royalty – after 35 years the rights revert to the original creator. This enables the songwriter to reassert control over their works, or to negotiate new terms with either their existing publisher, or an alternative rights company.

Because of the way the 1978 rule applied to retrospective copyrights, it’s only really in 2013 that this measure starts to make a big impact, and the American music publishing sector has been preparing accordingly for sometime. But what about the record labels?

The 1978 law doesn’t mention sound recordings, and labels insist that the reversion right does not apply to master recordings, because labels are in essence the creator – in that they commission the work – and the artists are simply engaged on a “work for hire” basis, depriving them of creator rights.

That’s not a radically controversial interpretation of American copyright law, though things are sufficiently grey in this domain that some artists reckon they do have creator rights over their master recordings, and everyone expects this one to be fought out in court when one of those artists sues. If said artists were to win, it would have a big impact on the majors, who could lose control of their incredibly valuable pre-1978 catalogues.

Speaking for the labels at a SxSW debate on this issue, lawyer Eric German said “just because you performed on a song does not mean you own it”, while Ken Abdo, arguing for the other side, said that the “work for hire” principle meant artists were basically employees of the record label, but that “artists don’t believe that recording contracts are the same [as employment contracts]”. Abdo added that he expected the majors to try and negotiate new royalty agreements with its major artists from the sixties and seventies to avoid a big precedent-setting square off in court.

But winning the quotable quote competition during the debate was Ms Gloria Gaynor, who’s biggest hit ‘I Will Survive’ was released in 1978, so its writers will benefit from the reversion right next year, but what about her as the recording artiste? Arguing that recording artists should also benefit from the reversion principle, according to Billboard she told the debate: “The reason this record continues to be popular is because I’m going to over 80 countries to promote it … even indentured slaves get let go sooner or later”. So that’s a new one, the major record companies, even less ethical than the slave owners.

Expect this debate to heat up Stateside over the coming year.