Creative Commons helps authors terminate copyright transfers


Author: Nathan Willis

Still seething over that bad book publishing deal you entered into in 1981? Good news: you might be able to rescue your manuscript and do something lucrative with it, thanks to Creative Commons (CC) and obscure portions of US copyright law. CC is beta testing a Web-based tool on its ccLabs site that helps authors through the tricky legal maze required to terminate a copyright transfer.

US copyright law dictates that authors can reclaim rights that they signed away (perhaps naively or without benefit of legal advice) in the past, but due to the numerous changes to copyright law over the years, the devil is in the details.

For instance, material created as “work for hire” or under commission are generally not eligible for transfer termination, but the specific definitions of those terms changed in 1978. And authors can terminate transfers for most eligible works after a specified period of time, but the creation date, publication date, and contract date all come into play.

In its current form, the Termination of Transfer Tool (TTT) is an interactive question-and-answer session. It steps you through the details of your situation, asking about dates, contracts, and — where necessary — legal wording.

If you meet the requirements for a transfer termination, the tool compiles your information into a PDF file that you can print out and take downtown to your lawyer’s office. If you don’t meet the requirements, it tells you why and refers you to the appropriate definitions and FAQs on the CC Web site.

CC does not initiate the legal process to exercise your transfer termination rights, and it has no plans to. The organization does hope to add a referral program to the process that will recommend lawyers willing to assist authors in the process of reclaiming their rights, but that program is still under development.

For the time being, TTT is branded a “beta,” and CC is soliciting feedback on its design and clarity.

Since the minimum time window for a termination is 35 years after the publication date, I did not have any personal copyright transfers to test in the TTT. CC provides a few hypothetical cases to play with, but I found it more interesting to experiment with some likely scenarios based on older members of my family who have published books.

I can say this much without hesitation: CC isn’t exaggerating when it calls the provisions of copyright law “complex.” Finding the specific conditions under which the author of a creative work can reclaim licensed-away rights is not easy.

Considering how few creators are likely to actually meet all of the transfer termination requirements, CC is wise to bill the TTT as more of an informational aid than a practical utility.

As an educational program, the tool sheds some light on its subject matter — but it does not simplify it. Based on my experience, although TTT does an excellent job of walking a copyright holder through the step-by-step process of determining eligibility of a transfer termination, this step-by-step approach hides the overall layout of the eligibility provisions.

I would almost rather see a yes/no “logic table” with an overview of what scenarios meet the law’s requirements than have to guess my way through the Q&A process using trial and error and leaping back and forth to the FAQ.

Still, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the first goal stated in CC’s release announcement for TTT: it is important to raise awareness of this copyright transfer termination option. I had never heard of it before TTT, and my unscientific poll of authors and artists indicates most are in the same boat.

Much of existing copyright law is one-sided, slanted toward Big Media and away from the little guy. TTT doesn’t change that, but the more people who understand how odd and inconvenient the law is, the closer we are to fixing it and making it easier to use. Maybe only a fraction of us need to exercise author’s rights to terminate a bad copyright transfer, but by making an issue out of it, TTT is doing something important.


  • Legal