Dear Rich: What does "perpetuity" mean in the case of a music publishing contract? I have a friend who signed a deal back in the sixties with a company that doesn't quite seem to exist anymore. The contract says that it is in perpetuity. He has never earned a dime in mechanical royalties. I'm so glad you asked. Perpetuity means forever. U.S. postage stamps and Batman may be forever, but not grants of copyright. If the music publishing deal was signed before January 1, 1978, the copyright owner can terminate it 56 years from the original date of copyright. So if the song was first published in 1960, the deal could be terminated in 2016. Although the Dear Rich staff can't vouch for their reliability, there are companies such as LegacyWorks that will assist you in the termination process.
Your friend may not have to wait until then to terminate. If the company has failed to account for mechanical royalties -- payments that the song writer is entitled to whenever copies of the song are pressed on records or CDs -- then a lawyer may be able to sue for breach and terminate on that basis. It's also possible that the company went out of business, in which case your friend could sue the successor (the company that took over rights). If no company has taken over rights, a lawyer may be able to get a legal declaration that the contract is void. Your friend should also check with the performing rights societies -- BMI and ASCAP -- to make sure that performance royalties from radio and TV are paid. These royalties do not have to go through the publisher and should go directly to the songwriter.