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'The Sole Right . . . Shall Return to the Authors': Anglo-American Authors' Reversion Rights from the Statute of Anne to Contemporary U.S. Copyright


Lionel A. F. Bently


University of Cambridge - Faculty of Law

Jane C. Ginsburg


Columbia Law School

October 1, 2010

Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 25
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 10-244
University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 11/06

Abstract:     
This study of author’s reversion rights begins with the Statute of Anne and the debates that led up to the adoption of section 11, which vested in the author a second fourteen-year term, provided he or she was still alive at the end of the initial fourteen-year term. The study then will address the impact of the author’s reversion right on publishing practice and authors’ welfare in the United Kingdom through the eighteenth century to the demise of the reversion right in 1814. We will suggest that the apparent lack of use of the reversion right by authors in the eighteenth century was a result of a host of factors, including but not limited to the common (but by no means universal) contractual practice which purported to confer on a publisher the entirety of an author’s rights. In addition, we call attention to the multiple and shifting interpretations of what was required by section 11, as well as the social and economic limitations on an author’s capacity to take advantage of the reversion. The second half of this study turns to the law and publishing practices in the United States, where reversion rights have proved more enduring if not always more beneficial to authors.

The study concludes that history and practice suggest at best inconsistent achievement of reversonary rights’ aim to offset the author’s weaker bargaining position by assuring her a future opportunity to make a better deal. Legislators might improve the reversion rights regime, but it is not clear that authors’ lots will accordingly ameliorate. Substantive regulation of contracts of transfer, rather than rights to terminate those transfers, may offer the preferable path to ensuring meaningful and effective protection of authors’ interests in reaping the fruits of their intellectual labors.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 97

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Date posted: August 23, 2010 ; Last revised: February 9, 2011

Suggested Citation

Bently, Lionel A. F. and Ginsburg, Jane C., 'The Sole Right . . . Shall Return to the Authors': Anglo-American Authors' Reversion Rights from the Statute of Anne to Contemporary U.S. Copyright (October 1, 2010). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 25; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 10-244 ; University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 11/06. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1663906

Contact Information

Lionel A. F. Bently
University of Cambridge - Faculty of Law ( email )
10 West Road
Cambridge, CB3 9DZ
United Kingdom
Jane C. Ginsburg (Contact Author)
Columbia Law School ( email )
435 West 116th Street
Rm 710
New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-3325 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)
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