Tonya M. Evans

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In a 2016 acceptance speech during the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards, actor and activist Jesse Williams used the phrase “gentrifying our genius” to refer to the insidious process of misappropriating the cultural and artistic productions of Black creators, inventors, and innovators. In that speech, he poignantly and unapologetically condemned racial discrimination and cultural misappropriation. This Article chronicles the nefarious history of the creative disempowerment of creators of color and then imagines an empowering future for those who successfully exploit their creations by fully leveraging copyright ownership and transfer termination. To that end, I reference the considerable scholarship of Professor K.J. Greene, which explores and challenges cultural misappropriation of Black musicians and composers, and build upon my own scholarship that explores the copyright transfer termination right as a potential legal tool for social and economic justice for creatives of color. I also reference an empirical study titled U.S. Copyright Termination Notices 1977–2020: Introducing New Datasets, to explore data and extrapolations regarding likely impacts of § 203 terminations since 2013. In this Article, I explore the paths of artists who leveraged opportunity through assignments and licenses and, later, artists who exercised their termination rights to secure a better deal with the original transferee, terminated and entered into contracts with other transferees, or went it alone and exploited their copyrights on their own. The termination right clearly benefits all copyright creators; however, members of marginalized and disenfranchised communities may stand to benefit even more from the second bite of the copyright apple. I assert that utilizing blockchain’s decentralized technology, smart contracts, and non-fungible token standards can better protect Black artists against disenfranchisement at the hands of a codified system of intentional friction to discourage or deny the reclamation of rights. Accordingly, in Part II, I examine the history in America and throughout the African diaspora of cultural misappropriation and critique the gentrification of Black creative genius. I explore gentrification as it is applied more broadly to real property and then discuss its application to intellectual property, generally, and copyright specifically. In Part III, I discuss the subject matter of copyright protection and the nature and mechanics of the transfer termination right. Specifically, I examine the history, purpose, and congressional intent of the right, as well as the method and the complexities of timing of notice and termination. In Part IV, I examine the pre-window fervor and speculation of stakeholder commentators around the likely impact of § 203 terminations prior to 2013. I examine the actual impact since 2013 and a forecast of likely trends, as described in the termination notices study, written by Joshua Yuvaraj, Rebecca Giblin, Daniel Russo-Batterham & Genevieve Grant. Finally, in Part V, I discuss the role that blockchain technology, smart contract code, and non-fungible token standards could play in automating codified protections. Removing the educational and legalistic barriers to exercising one’s termination rights and automating the transfer termination process could ensure that all artists have actual—not theoretical—rights, especially disenfranchised creatives victimized first by powerful industry intermediaries and then by the copyright regime created by those same industry stakeholders (and blessed by Congress) to protect industry, rather than creator, interests.