Monday 17 November 2014

New Bill Proposed to Amend U.S. Copyright Act to Protect Inheritance Rights of Same-Sex Spouses

On November 12, 2014 Senator Patrick Leahy proposed Bill 2919 which would amend the Copyright Act to insure that all married couples are treated equally under the Act.

As many of our readers know, generally the term of a copyright lasts decades beyond the death of the author, and that copyrights may pass to an author's heirs upon death. Section 203 of the Copyright Act also endows an author's heirs with the right to terminate transfers and licenses made by the author during his or her life under certain conditions. Importantly, the acquisition of these rights by an author's heirs may rely upon the Copyright Act's definition of "widow" and "widower" contained in 17 U.S.C. § 101. Under this definition an author's "widow" or "widower" is the author's surviving spouse under the law of the author's domicile at the time of death. Essentially, this means that a same-sex couple legally married in Vermont would not have the same rights under the Copyright Act if, at the time of the author's death, they live in a state that does not recognize gay marriage, such as Georgia. Senate Bill 2919 would cure this inequity by amending the definition of "widow" and "widower" to hinge upon whether the author's marriage would be recognized by the courts of the state where the author was married at the time of the author's death. As Senator Leahy stated when introducing Senate Bill 2919, the bill "amends the Copyright Act to look simply at whether a couple is lawfully married--not where a married couple happens to live when the copyright owner dies. It will ensure that the rights attached to the works of our Nation's gay and lesbian authors, musicians, painters, photographers, and other creators pass to their widows and widowers. Artists are the creative lifeblood of our Nation, and our laws should protect their families equally."

The full text of the proposed bill is available here, and the transcript of the entirety of Senator Leahy's introduction here. The bill is presently in committee and has not yet been signed into law.

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