Jul 3, 2024 3 min read

Stem wars: recent lawsuits expose copyright pitfalls for labels and producers

Recent lawsuits highlight the complex copyright issues faced by labels and producers where multiple people are involved in the production of a track, with a number of clashes over unauthorised use of stems, loops and beats in hit songs

Stem wars: recent lawsuits expose copyright pitfalls for labels and producers

A series of lawsuits have highlighted how critical it is for labels and producers to meticulously track and clarify ownership of any beats, stems or loops used in their releases. In particular, where elements of the track have come from third parties, it is essential to understand who created what and who owns the copyright.

The most recent case involves songwriter and producer Jon Hume, who is suing Universal Music over allegations that the Dean Lewis track ‘Be Alright’ contains stems that he created. They were used without his permission, he claims, after the label told him that his work was not going to be used in the final release. 

The dispute echoes similar recent cases, including 2Point9Records’ lawsuit against Sony Music’s Ministry Of Sound Recordings, producer Sébastien Graux’s claim against Feid and Universal Music, and a dispute between Dutch producer Noam Ofirand and Norwegian Frederik Øverlie.

No one disputes that Hume was involved in the writing of ‘Be Alright’ back in 2015 and, according to the MLC database, he has a 50% stake in the song copyright. 

He also created an original version of the track, playing all the instruments and adding Lewis’s vocals. He then provided that recording - and its constituent stems - to Lewis’s label. There was talk of Universal using his stems at one point, but he was ultimately told - before the record’s release in 2018 - that “we did not end up using any of Jon’s files in the final master”.

However, last year he discovered that more than half of the stems in the released version of ‘Be Alright’ were from his original recording, contradicting the assurances the label gave.

His lawsuit states that Universal Music “have misappropriated the sounds embodied on the stems created by Jon Hume, their author”, and that his “creative contributions” to ‘Be Alright’ are “original and rise to a level of independent copyrightability”. Therefore the major is liable for copyright infringement.

There are parallels here to the recent lawsuit filed in the UK courts by indie 2Point9 Records against Sony Music’s Ministry Of Sound Recordings. That case relates to the 2019 DJ Regard remix of Jay Sean’s ‘Ride It’ track, originally recorded in 2008 and released by 2Point9. Ministry claimed to have re-recorded all the elements of the original track for the official release of the remix. However, it’s alleged the re-records happened after the official release, and for a time a version containing elements from the original was in circulation.

Meanwhile, last month producer Sébastien Graux sued Feid and his label Universal Music claiming guitar loops he created were used in three Feid tracks without proper credit and compensation. 

In that case Graux had shared his loops with producer Jowan, who then produced Feid album ‘Feliz Cumpleaños Ferxxo Te Pirateamos El Álbum’. Graux was subsequently told that his loops would be used on three Feid tracks, and that he would get credit and compensation. But that credit and compensation never came. 

A 2023 Norwegian court case involving musicians Noam Ofirand, who is based in the Netherlands, and Norway-based Fredrik Øverlie, further complicates things, raising significant questions about copyright ownership in international online collaborations. 

Ofirand created recordings that were incorporated into tracks subsequently released by Øverlie, but he argued that he had not consented to the release of the recordings. The litigation centred on a dispute over who was the presumed first owner of the copyright in the initial recordings created by Ofirand. 

The Norwegian courts ultimately ruled in favour of Øverlie, but some criticised that judgement, saying it set a dangerous precedent for musicians collaborating across borders online. 

Obviously, the specifics of these various disputes are different. However, what they all demonstrate is that, where beats, stems and loops are being shared between collaborators, all parties need to be clear on what elements are used in any final release, and who owns the copyright in each individual component. 

In some of these cases, some parties might accuse the other side of bad faith and misconduct, although the disputes could also be the result of mistakes and misunderstandings. Either way, ideally the industry could do with avoiding all of those things.

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