Novello v Keither Prowse: Reverting to reversionary interests

“Reversionary rights” may appear to be relics of the past, but students of this arcane topic will be intrigued to note that the Court of Appeal has upheld a High Court decision that the author of a work created before 1957 could, after that date, validly assign the “reversionary interest” arising under the 1911 Copyright Act, by which the copyright otherwise reverts to the author’s estate 25 years after the author’s death. This is of particular interest to the music and book publishing industries and, by extension, to the film and television industries, where a film or programme is based on a work written before 1957.

The specific issue was whether the transitional provisions of the 1956 Copyright Act preserved the proviso to section 5(2) of the 1911 Act, which prohibited such assignments. The court held that although the proviso continued to render pre-1957 assignments of the reversionary interest invalid, it did not operate to restrict the general freedom of authors after that date to dispose of their rights as they thought fit.

In this particular case, the author had assigned the copyright in a number of works to Keith Prowse Music Publishing in the 1940’s. In 1973, he assigned his reversionary interest to KPMP. Novello & Co claimed to be the owner of that interest by virtue of a later assignment, executed by the author’s trustees after his death. The Court of Appeal agreed that the 1973 assignment prevailed.

Until now the general view was that all pre-1988 lifetime assignments of the reversionary interest in pre-1957 works were invalid. The validity of subsequent assignments is not in issue. This case will be of particular interest to music and book publishers who surrendered copyrights to the estates of deceased writers or their assignees, where those writers executed specific assignments of the reversionary interest, or documents which could be construed as including such an interest, between 1957 and 1988.

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.