Get your copyright back: your window of opportunity

If you signed an agreement transferring copyright to a publisher anytime between 1978 and 1988, you have a window of opportunity to terminate that transfer, right now.

Many scholars find themselves in this position:

  • They wrote a book in the late seventies to late eighties.
  • They transferred their copyright to the publisher who agreed to publish and distribute the work.
  • After a period of time the work fell into out-of-print limbo, seldom available and not commercially exploited.

A provision of copyright law has just come into effect that can provide some relief for those willing to take affirmative steps. One benefit of regaining control of your work is the ability to take advantage of new publishing models such as digital, Open Access publication. The University Libraries can help by sending your publication to the Internet Archive, where it can be digitized and made available in pdf, Kindle and ePub versions, at no cost to you. Boston College's Internet Archive collections have also contributed to the massive HathiTrust digital library. Anyone with an internet connection can access the work, anywhere in the world, giving the greatest possible visibility to your work.

17 USC § 203 allows authors to terminate transfers of copyright to their works. Because of the timing constraints written into the law, the first of those works will revert to the author on January 1, 2013, IF the author navigated all the regulations successfully.

In summary, here's how it works:

  • The provision only applies to copyright transfer agreements signed after January 1, 1978.
  • Authors can terminate the transfer and regain copyright to their works no sooner than 35 years after the agreement was signed, and no later than 40 years after the agreement was signed; a five-year window.
  • In order to terminate the agreement the author must give notice to the copyright holder no later than two years before the termination date and no more than 10 years before the date.

So, for copyrights transferred any time between 1978 and 1988, the window of opportunity to regain those rights is right now.

Here's my reading of the operative dates for two termination time frames. Agreements in the intervening years could also be terminated, with comparable deadlines applied.

Jan 1, 1978 agreement:

  • Earliest possible termination Jan 1, 2013
  • Last possible termination Jan 1, 2018
  • Earliest possible notice Jan 1, 2003
  • Last possible notice Jan 1, 2016

Jan 1, 1988 agreement:

  • Earliest possible termination Jan 1, 2023
  • Last possible termination Jan 1, 2028
  • Earliest possible notice Jan 1, 2013
  • Last possible notice Jan 1, 2026

Regulations from the Copyright office specify exactly what should be contained in the notice, including:

  • A statement that the termination is made under section 203
  • The name of each grantee whose rights are being terminated
  • The date of execution of the grant being terminated
  • For each work to which the notice of termination applies, the title of the work and the name of the author or authors who executed the grant being terminated
  • The effective date of termination
  • A brief statement reasonably identifying the grant to which the notice of termination applies

The notice must be signed by all authors terminating the transfer of rights. It can be mailed by first class mail and should also be recorded with the Copyright Office (a fee is charged).

The rules to effect this termination of a transfer of copyright are fairly exacting. Anyone who contemplates doing it should review the statute, the regulations and Copyright Office Circular 12.

If you have questions about this opportunity, please contact Jane Morris, Scholarly Communication Librarian.

Jane Morris
Scholarly Communications Librarian