Under US copyright law, creators who have signed away their copyrights for the "full duration of copyright" can still get their rights back from publishers under something called the "Termination of Transfer," which is a hellishly complex and technical copyright provision that is almost never used, since it requires that creators wait decades and then successfully navigate all that complexity (even knowing how many years you have to wait is complicated!).
Creative Commons and the Authors Alliance (where I'm a volunteer advisor) have teamed up to create America's first Termination of Transfer tool, called Rightsback. Answer a brief questionnaire about when contracts were signed, who else is listed as an author, when the work was published and similar questions, and the tool will help you figure out whether you can reclaim your rights.
I imagine this will be especially useful for academic works: academics are typically required to assign their copyrights to journals for no money, with no reversion clauses giving them the right to republish them, sell them, or give them away, even if the journals are out of print and their work is consequently no longer available.
Creators of all kinds routinely transfer rights to their works (by signing publication contracts that assign copyright to their publishers, for example). While many of these agreements last "for the life of copyright" (which under current United States law generally means seventy years after the author dies), the law takes into account that these terms can ultimately be unfair to authors and artists. This is where "termination of transfers" come in.
In the United States, authors can use the termination of transfers laws to regain the rights they have signed away. But because the law is complex, and because it requires that authors wait years or decades to take advantage of it, creators need to be patient, savvy, and persistent to exercise this right.
Many people use terminations because their works are tremendously successful, and they want to recapture rights to enjoy more of their work's financial success.
Many others find that their works are no longer as available as they might wish. Their books might be out of print, or their songs might not be digitized or available online. For creators who want their works to be widely shared and enjoyed—who want to take advantage of a vibrant internet that might not have existed when they signed that contract all those years ago—terminations are a powerful option for getting their works back out in front of audiences.
Whatever they choose to do, it is important that creators know this law exists, and that they feel empowered to take advantage of it. Authors Alliance and Creative Commons developed this tool to raise awareness of the law and its importance to creators who want to share their works widely.
Rightsback [Creative Commons/Authors Alliance]
Landmark release of Termination of Transfer tool from Creative Commons and Authors Alliance
[Diane Peters/Creative Commons]