Since their release in 1978, hit albums like Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Billy Joel’s “52nd Street,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute,” Kenny Rogers’s “Gambler” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” have generated tens of millions of dollars for record companies. But thanks to a little-noted provision in United States copyright law, those artists — and thousands more — now have the right to reclaim ownership of their recordings, potentially leaving the labels out in the cold.
When copyright law was revised in the mid-1970s, musicians, like creators of other works of art, were granted “termination rights,” which allow them to regain control of their work after 35 years, so long as they apply at least two years in advance. Recordings from 1978 are the first to fall under the purview of the law, but in a matter of months, hits from 1979, like “The Long Run” by the Eagles and “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer, will be in the same situation — and then, as the calendar advances, every other master recording once it reaches the 35-year mark.
The provision also permits songwriters to reclaim ownership of qualifying songs. Bob Dylan has already filed to regain some of his compositions, as have other rock, pop and country performers like Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits and Charlie Daniels, according to records on file at the United States Copyright Office.
“In terms of all those big acts you name, the recording industry has made a gazillion dollars on those masters, more than the artists have,” said Don Henley, a founder both of the Eagles and the Recording Artists Coalition, which seeks to protect performers’ legal rights. “So there’s an issue of parity here, of fairness. This is a bone of contention, and it’s going to get more contentious in the next couple of years.”
With the recording industry already reeling from plummeting sales, termination rights claims could be another serious financial blow. Sales plunged to about $6.3 billion from $14.6 billion over the decade ending in 2009, in large part because of unauthorized downloading of music on the Internet, especially of new releases, which has left record labels disproportionately dependent on sales of older recordings in their catalogs.
“This is a life-threatening change for them, the legal equivalent of Internet technology,” said Kenneth J. Abdo, a lawyer who leads a termination rights working group for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and has filed claims for some of his clients, who include Kool and the Gang. As a result the four major record companies — Universal, Sony BMG, EMI and Warner — have made it clear that they will not relinquish recordings they consider their property without a fight.
“We believe the termination right doesn’t apply to most sound recordings,” said Steven Marks, general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America, a lobbying group in Washington that represents the interests of record labels. As the record companies see it, the master recordings belong to them in perpetuity, rather than to the artists who wrote and recorded the songs, because, the labels argue, the records are “works for hire,” compilations created not by independent performers but by musicians who are, in essence, their employees.
Independent copyright experts, however, find that argument unconvincing. Not only have recording artists traditionally paid for the making of their records themselves, with advances from the record companies that are then charged against royalties, they are also exempted from both the obligations and benefits an employee typically expects.
“This is a situation where you have to use your own common sense,” said June M. Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at the Columbia University School of Law. “Where do they work? Do you pay Social Security for them? Do you withdraw taxes from a paycheck? Under those kinds of definitions it seems pretty clear that your standard kind of recording artist from the ’70s or ’80s is not an employee but an independent contractor.”
Daryl Friedman, the Washington representative of the recording academy, which administers the Grammy Awards and is allied with the artists’ position, expressed hope that negotiations could lead to a “broad consensus in the artistic community, so there don’t have to be 100 lawsuits.” But with no such talks under way, lawyers predict that the termination rights dispute will have to be resolved in court.
“My gut feeling is that the issue could even make it to the Supreme Court,” said Lita Rosario, an entertainment lawyer specializing in soul, funk and rap artists who has filed termination claims on behalf of clients, whom she declined to name. “Some lawyers and managers see this as an opportunity to go in and renegotiate a new and better deal. But I think there are going to be some artists who feel so strongly about this that they are not going to want to settle, and will insist on getting all their rights back.”[snip][end]
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