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US advocacy group backs artists in termination rights case against the majors

By | Published on Friday 22 February 2019


An artist advocacy group in the US has come out in support of the acts who recently sued Universal Music and Sony Music in cases that will test if and how the termination right in American copyright law applies to sound recordings.

Artists including David Johansen of the New York Dolls filed litigation earlier this month seeking to reclaim ownership of old recordings released by the majors. Under US copyright law, creators who assign their rights to a third party have a one-time opportunity to terminate that assignment and reclaim their copyrights – for America only – after 35 years.

The termination right originates in 1970s copyright law so has only really become relevant in recent years. On the songs side of the music business, plenty of songwriters are now exercising this right to reclaim copyrights that were part of long-term assignment deals with music publishers back in the day.

However, on the recordings side many record companies argue that – because record deals are work-for-hire agreements, making the label the artist’s employer – the label is the default owner of any recording copyrights created under those arrangements. Which means no rights were ever assigned by the artist, so there is no assignment to terminate.

But plenty of artists, managers and lawyers disagree, mainly by arguing that record deals are not, in fact, work-for-hire agreements. That argument is a key element of the two lawsuits filed earlier this month which, if successful, could result in a flood of heritage artists seeking to reclaim their American recording rights.

That legal action has now been backed by the Artist Rights Alliance, a lobbying group previously known as the Content Creators Coalition which includes artists like Rosanne Cash, John McCrea and Tift Merrit as active members.

It said in a statement yesterday: “Recently, several featured artists filed a class action lawsuit against Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment challenging the labels’ stonewalling of artist efforts to reclaim rights to their work they are owed under law. We strongly support the artists in this case and the right of all creators to reclaim control of their work as permitted by federal copyright law”.

The Alliance reckons that it is “beyond dispute that the Copyright Act of 1976 allows artists to take back full ownership of their works 35 years after release. However, it appears that in too many cases artists attempting to exercise this right have been met with evasion, foot dragging, or unfounded rejection of their claims altogether”.

The statement then notes how, early on in their careers, artists usually have to except unfavourable deals in order to access investment and marketing, and that is why the termination right was introduced. “The federally guaranteed power to terminate grants of copyright ownership and reclaim personal rights to work is one of very few protections we have”, it adds, “a guarantee that, eventually, regardless of the vagaries of label contracts, we will eventually have full rights to and control over our art and its long-term legacy”.

The group then says: “We don’t question the value of labels or the vital role they play in launching artistic careers. But they are well paid for these efforts. Fundamentally, however, as Congress has recognised, at some point featured artists must have full ownership and control of the rights to their own work. No one pursues their passion hoping to enter perpetual indentured servitude and no artist can be impelled to contract away the inescapable tie between a creator and his or her expressive work”.

“We’ve proudly partnered with labels in our careers and our advocacy and we respect their contribution to the music ecosystem immensely”, it concludes. “But this is not how partners treat each other. Labels must treat us and our art with respect and dignity – now and 35 years from now. We stand in solidarity with the artists filing these lawsuits and hope this injustice is remedied immediately and that all record labels commit to honouring artist termination rights in the future”.