A Wrinkle in Law

There are many unique wrinkles to copyright law. As you might expect, most of them are boring. In fact, the one I am about to relate is boring…but had an interesting impact on my life.

For songs copyrighted prior to 1978, there is a provision in the copyright law that allows creators who assigned rights to someone else to reclaim their rights to royalties after 56 years.

This provision addressed an inequity generated from the practice of “work for hire”. Many songwriters in the days of Tin Pan Alley, early Broadway and Hollywood, worked writing songs for a salary. When they did, the songs they wrote were the property of the company who paid them that salary.

If you wrote “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” for Disney you were bumming, because you never saw any more royalties beyond the paycheck you got on Friday.

Enter me. In the late 80s, I was an undergrad studying music and business at NYU. In search of practical experience, I got a job working two days a week at the Songwriter’s Guild of America. The guild was a non-profit which essentially functioned as a union for songwriters. Advocating for songwriters, providing legal services, and helping songwriters with managing their copyrights.

My job was digging through books of copyright filings (Yes, books. No computers yet) and finding songs written by guild members which were eligible for the 56 year provision, and making the necessary filings for them to reclaim rights to royalties for these songs (with a typewriter. Honest).

This was a pretty big deal to aging songwriters and their families. Many of these songs were lost and forgotten, but many were popular favorites that still got airplay, were covered, played on elevators or whatever else. If you are a retired songwriter living on a fixed income, you want that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” money.

It’s been a long time. I can’t relate the names of the songs and songwriters, but you knew many of them. They were songs I saw the title of and heard instantly in my head. I had the privilege of meeting some of these songwriters who would come into the office for meetings…and I am proud that I helped them, in some small way, regain ownership of their creative work.