The reason is that in 1978, Congress passed a new Copyright Law that stated that after 35 years, songwriters would be able to reclaim publishing rights from record labels. That date is coming on January 1, 2013, after which artists will have a five year window from the time their song was created in which they can petition to reclaim their rights. Artists still must file termination notices at least two years before the date they want to recoup their work, and if they fail to act, their right to reclaim their work lapses.
So why would a record label own their publishing in the first place? Even back before so called "360 deals," record labels knew that the real money in the music business was in publishing, so a stipulation of most recording contracts was that they would assign their publishing to the company's publishing company. For a new artist this wasn't such a bad thing, since that usually meant that they got an additional advance, and a large publishing company could place the songs in places (like movies) that a small one didn't have access to.
Still, after you've had some success and you see at least a quarter (maybe even half) of your songwriting income going to the label's publisher, it does give one pause. Today there are so many less expensive alternatives to a major publisher that it would seem that the only songwriters who pass up this opportunity will be those with real estate attorneys acting as entertainment attorneys. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Loretta Lynn have all filed petitions already; they'll get the snowball rolling down the hill. Are you or someone you know eligible?
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