The Sixth Circuit recently examined what happens when an author of a pre-1978 copyright dies before the renewal right in the copyright has vested. The Court of Appeals judges reversed a district court judgment and held that the music publisher, who was assignee of renewal rights in numerous songs, is the owner of the renewal copyrights to those songs, and not songwriter’s widow, where the songwriter died after the publisher filed renewal applications but before renewal term began.

Plaintiffs, Roger Miller Music Inc. and Mary Miller, widow of famed country singer and songwriter Roger Miller, sued Sony/ATV Publishing for copyright infringement, claiming that Roger Miller Music owned the renewal copyrights for Miller’s songs.

Background: In the 1960s, Miller, best known for his hit, “King of the Road,” assigned the original and renewal copyrights to his songs to Tree Publishing Co., Sony’s predecessor-in-interest. Miller received royalty payments for use of these songs. In both January and April 1992, Sony filed applications to register the renewal copyrights for songs with the renewal terms beginning Jan. 1. 1993. Miller died in October, 1992. That was after the application but before the copyright renewal term began.

In his will, Miller granted all interests in his intellectual property to his wife, Mary, who assigned those interests to Roger Miller Music. For 12 years prior to the lawsuit, Sony continued to tap Miller’s songs and paid royalties to Roger Miller Music.

The district court held that Sony did not own the renewal copyrights for the songs that had renewal dates after Miller’s death.  The court decided that Sony infringed on those copyrights and awarded Roger Miller Music and the widow $903,349 in damages. The court reasoned that Miller died prior to vesting of renewal rights and the Copyright Act did not include assignees in the list of statutory successors to the rights. Under this court’s interpretation of renewal provisions, the singer-songwriter needed to be alive at the start of the renewal term to effectuate his assignment of the renewal copyright to Sony.

Appellate DecisionThe Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and agreed with Sony that Miller only had to be alive when the applications were filed.  The appellate court cited the 1992 amendments to the Copyright Act and held that an author is entitled under  § 304(a)(1)(C) to renewal and extension of copyright if living. Under the Copyright Act, “[t]he renewal copyright vests in any party entitled to it ‘at the time the application is made.’ The author (and therefore any of his assignees) thus secures an interest in the renewal copyright so long as he is still living at the time of application for renewal with the Copyright Office. This interest is not lost even if the author subsequently dies prior to the commencement of the renewal term.”

Because Miller was alive when application for registration occurred, he was entitled to renewal copyright. Sony, therefore, was entitled as hiss assignee and took ownership when the interest vested on Jan. 1, 1993. Just because interest in the renewal copyright vests at the beginning of the renewal term – in this case on Jan 1, 1993, after Miller’s death – it does not change that ownership, the appellate court ruled.

The 1992 Copyright Act separates the question of who is entitled to the renewal rights from the question of who is alive when renewal vests, therefore the date of vesting is not dispositive of who owns the copyright. In sum, the date of the renewal application determines entitlement to ownership and a party can become entitled to ownership of the renewal copyright prior to the time it actually vests.