British Reversionary Right

The service of a notice of termination under the Copyright Act is generally believed to effect a termination of rights in the United States only. While there may be a legal or contractual basis for also reclaiming rights outside the United States, this must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In addition, an analysis of the relevant foreign copyright laws is recommended. Particularly with respect to older works, the possible application of foreign copyright laws relating to the posthumous reversion of copyrights should be considered. Many foreign jurisdictions recognize some form of reversionary interests. Foremost among the foreign reversionary laws are the provisions relating to the British Reversionary Right.

The United Kingdom Copyright Act of 1911 provided that copyrighted works granted to a third-party automatically revert to the author’s heirs, successors, or legal representatives 25 years after the death of the author under the following circumstances: (i) the author is the first copyright owner of the work, and (ii) the grant being terminated (e.g., the publishing agreement) was made by the author (grants made by the author’s heirs are not terminable under Copyright Act of 1911). The Copyright Act of 1911 applied to all of the so-called “British Reversionary Territories” or “BRTs”– that is, all countries that were part of the British Commonwealth as of 1911.1

With the passage of time, the individual countries that made up the British Reversionary Territories adopted their own copyright laws, and those laws have also been amended over time. In most of the major BRTs, the concept of a reversionary right was deleted from the law, and in these countries the right exists only until the date that the respective law changed. Accordingly, in the United Kingdom the reversionary right applies only to grants made by the author on or before June 1, 1957. In New Zealand, the reversionary right is available for grants made by the author on or before April 1, 1963. In South Africa, the right applies to grants made by the author on or before September 10, 1965, and in Australia the right is available for grants made by the author on or before May 1, 1969. The reversionary right exists to this day in Canada.

In the “non-joint work” BRTs (all of the major BRTs other than Canada), the actual date of reversion depends on whether or not the work is a joint work. If the work is deemed “joint,” then the rights in the song revert on the later of (i) 25 years after the date of death of the first author to die, or (ii) the date of death of the last author to die. In these countries, if the work is deemed “non-joint” then the reversionary date is calculated separately for each author. In Canada, the reversion occurs 25 years after the date of death of the last author to die. While the Copyright Act of 1911 provides for the automatic reversion of rights in the subject works, as a practical matter the music publisher will continue to claim ownership in the songs (and retain the publisher’s share of income) until the author’s heirs assert their reversionary rights.

The Copyright Act of 1911 does not require that a particular form of notice be sent in order to claim reversionary rights. To facilitate your claim you should identify the author of the composition, the date of the original composition, the parties to the original contract and their successors in interest, the author’s date of death, and the relationship of the reversionary claimants to the author (i.e., heirs, executor, trustee, or legal representative). There is no time limit on claiming reversionary rights; the claim may be made at any time following the 25th anniversary of the author’s death. Given the popularity of American musical “standards” in the British territories, the British reversionary rights in these countries can be valuable indeed.

  1. The British Reversionary Territories are generally believed to include the following: Anguilla, Antigua, Ascension Islands, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Barbuda, Belize, Bermuda, Botswana, British Antarctic Territory, British Virgin Islands, Brunei, Canada, Cayman Islands, Central and Southern Line Islands, Channel Islands, Cyprus, Dominica, Falkland Islands, Federated Malay States, Gambia, Ghana, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Hong Kong, India, Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Montserrat, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Borneo, Pakistan, Pitcairn Islands, Rendonda, Republic of South Africa, Sarawak, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands, Sri Lanka, St. Helena, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tristan de Cunha, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, Zambia, Zimbabwe.