Terminating a Transfer or License

For works created after 1978, section 203 of the Copyright Act provides that the creator (or "author" in copyright terminology) of a work may terminate a transfer, exclusive, or non-exclusive license of any or all rights under copyright for that work during the five-year period:

  • starting at the end of thirty-five years from execution of the grant;
  • for a grant that covers the right of publication of a work, the five-year period beginning at the earlier of:
    • the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work; or
    • the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant.

To terminate a grant or license, you must serve notice of termination upon the grantee (the recipient of the transfer or license) or the grantee's successor in title (meaning the person or entity to whom the original grantee transfered his interest). The notice must be in writing and state the date of termination, which must fall within the five-year period outlined immediately above. You are required to serve the notice not less than two, nor more than ten, years before the termination date designated in the notice. Additionally, you need to file a copy of the notice with the Copyright Office prior to the termination date.

To be valid, a termination notice must comply with the form, content, and manner of service set out in the Copyright Regulations. You can find these regulations at 37 C.F.R. 201.10.

Joint Works, Works Made for Hire, and Deceased Authors

In case of a work of joint authorship, a grant executed by two or more joint authors may be terminated, pursuant to the section 203 of the Copyright Act, only if a majority of the joint authors who executed it agree to the termination. For more on works of joint authorship, see the Joint Authorship section.

When the creator of the work is deceased at the time of the five-year statutory period for termination discussed above, her successors in interest (surviving spouse and/or children; the executor, administrator, personal representative, or trustee in case there is no spouse or surviving children) may exercise the right of termination. The rules governing who owns what share of the termination interest and who must agree in order to effect termination are complex, and a lawyer's help will usually be necessary under these circumstances.

Works that qualify as works made for hire are not subject to termination by the employee or freelancer. For more on works made for hire, please see the Works for Hire section.

Note: Non-exclusive licenses granted without consideration can also be revoked at will, but it may be difficult to determine whether valid consideration has been granted. See the Creating a Written Contract to Transfer or License Rights Under Copyright section for details.


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