In 1978, Congress put the Copyright Law into effect. Most of it was standard fare, but it included a caveat which wouldn't be relevant for 35 years: songwriters would be able to reclaim publishing rights from record labels.
The New York Times says that beginning on January 1, 2013, artists will have a five-year window from the time their song was created in which they can petition to reclaim their rights.
Congress passed the copyright law in 1976, specifying that it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 1978, meaning that the earliest any recording can be reclaimed is Jan. 1, 2013. But artists must file termination notices at least two years before the date they want to recoup their work, and once a song or recording qualifies for termination, its authors have five years in which to file a claim; if they fail to act in that time, their right to reclaim the work lapses.
So who will be eligible from Day 1? The NYT points out that artists like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Funkadelic Parlament all have classic songs whose rights are currently owned by record labels. Should they petition (or if they already have), they'll be entitled to all future royalties from those songs. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Loretta Lynn already have.
Why is this important? Sometimes artists sign bad deals. They certainly had less savvy back then (it seems likeevery artist has their own label imprint these days). Maybe in the early stages of one's career, an artst didn't have the upperhand in negotiating a deal, so they took a bad one in exchange for exposure. Maybe they didn't know any better. But for those who landed an unexpected hit while bound to one of these unfortunate contracts, they'll no longer be financially penalised for their past transgressions. [NY Times]