These days, the circumstances under which rights to a book revert, are of particular interest to authors. In the past, once a book "ran its course" it had little interest to other publishers. These days, that's not so. There are some publishers that focus on back-list out-of-print-titles (such as Open Road Media) and of course with the rise of self-publishing, the author themselves may have an interest in re-releasing a title.
Some small presses and most of the foreign contracts will have a fixed-length term, usually five to seven years. I LOVE these kinds of contracts because I know exactly when I get the rights back. When it comes to the big-five, though, the contracts are generally written "for the life of copyright" which means seventy years after the author dies. Ouch, that's a long time. That being said, books aren't always with a publisher for that long. Once sales drop to some threshold (either a particular dollar figure or the number of books sold in a given period), then the books revert.
But, there is another way for authors to get their rights back sooner, and it's not often known. It has to do with copyright law, in particular: Section 203(a) and Section 304(c). For today's purposes, I'm only going to discuss works that will matter to most people reading this post and that is anything published after January 1, 1978. For these works an author can request reversion under the following criteria:
- Either 35 years from publication or 40 years from the date of an assignment of copyright to a publisher.
- Termination must occur within a 5 year period or the reversion right is forfeited.
- Termination notice must be served on the copyright holder no later than two years before expiration and up to ten years before beginning of a five year period.
So, let's do an example. For a work published in 1978, the termination window is 2013-2018. The notice must be submitted no later than 2016 and no earlier than 2003.
Thirty-five years is still a REALLY long time, but it is certainly a lot less than seventy years after the author dies.
This is just one of those little-known facts, that might be needed at some point. So I thought I would mention it.