Wednesday, September 23, 2009

She's Afraid of Assignment Reversion

Dear Rich: I was artist/writer of a series on which the contract clearly reserved all rights to me. I signed this contract when I was a teen. My editor (who was also my publisher) decided my writing could use some revision, and took it upon himself to rewrite. When the book was published, the script was credited entirely to him, which was false.  Within a couple of issues, the indicia of my book indicated fewer and fewer rights for me and more for the company, with the copyright switching to half company ownership and half trademark ownership. My contract didn't even mention trademark, and it clearly stated that the work was to be copyrighted in my name. After a bitter argument, my editor stopped rewriting my scripts, but still took credit for a couple more issues. The matter ended up in an ugly legal dispute with an out of court settlement. I retained all rights to my work, and the company/editor signed a release agreeing that I was the sole owner and sole creator of the work. Eventually, I rewrote and redrew my entire series from scratch and threw out everything the editor had touched. I filed trademark and copyright papers under my own name. The series is still in print. However, this was many years ago. I understand that a copyright assignment can revert and I am concerned that I will be fighting against a copyright reversion claim in a few years. Would he have a claim to my current series if he attempts to file for copyright reversion in a few years? Yes, it all happened that long ago! There's no short answer to your question; there's too many loose ends. We're confused about what we're dealing with -- a book, a magazine series, a script? -- and we're also unclear about the timing of things. But hey, we're often confused and that doesn't stop us! So here goes:
Assignment rules. There's a difference in the rules for assignments made before 1978 and after (it gets particularly complicated if it's pre-1978). These laws were intended to provide a means for copyright owners to terminate bad deals made years earlier. We're not clear how a judge would rule regarding the potential assignment reversion but based upon your facts, it seems contrary to the spirit of the law.  
The settlement. If a dispute does arise over an attempted rights reversion, the answers to your questions will likely come from a review of your settlement agreement -- that is, a judge or arbitrator may look to the settlement for guidance. If you can afford the fees, you could take a pre-emptive step and have the settlement agreement reviewed by an attorney. 
The new serial. It's difficult to see what rights the publisher could claim to your new series. Perhaps the editor could argue it's a derivative work and therefore the editor has rights on that basis. We think that's a difficult claim to pursue (given the facts presented here). 
Wildcard dept. There are also a couple of  wildcards. Apparently you're talking about a serialized work and it's not clear what elements of the serial are covered by your agreement and which ones are not -- that is, we assumed you continued to create new serial contributions after the settlement. It's also not clear who acquired trademark rights in the settlement. In summary, your situation may be too complicated to rely on the generalized analysis of the Dear Rich Staff; if this situation is creating anxiety, pick up the phone and call an attorney versed in copyright law.