Taylor Swift’s defense and course of action in her copyright battle against the music label is not waterproof. However, his fight is a vital reminder of caution to young artists who are often reluctant to protect themselves from critical clauses when signing recording contracts.
In 2019, world-renowned singer-songwriter Taylor Swift announced plans to re-record her first six studio albums (released between 2006 and 2017), originally produced by Big Machine Records, an independent label based in Nashville, USA. -United. The reason why Swift embarked on this Herculean task of re-recording almost 108 songs, plus the addition of unreleased âVault Tracksâ? A quest to reclaim the songs sung on his first six albums. In order to make sense of what comes next in 2021, it’s important to go back to June 2005.
At age 15, Swift signed a six-album recording deal with Big Machine Records, then owned by Scott Borchetta. Through this deal, Swift effectively gave Big Machine Records full masters ownership (i.e. the official recording of a song) of all music on his upcoming albums, including videos and songs. album covers, allowing them to use it as they see fit. This left Swift no control over how, when, and to whom these rights could be sold.
That’s why in 2019, when Scooter Braun, manager of Ithaca Holdings, bought Big Machine Records for $ 300 million, he accordingly acquired the masters of Swift’s six albums. Swift had no say in it, even revealing that she had not been treacherously briefed on the transaction. His masters were again sold in November 2020 to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings. So far, Swift’s attempts to get her masters back have not been successful.
Given that Swift wrote, performed, and sang each of the songs on those six albums, it’s natural to expect that she will exercise full ownership over them. Unfortunately, this is not how most record contracts work. The usual result is that budding artists sign ownership of their recordings in exchange for financial support and encouragement from record companies. Record companies promote such offers because of the risk taken in the huge sums of money and time they invest in (usually) young and unknown talent. Swift’s case was no different.
Ideally, once the musical rights are sold, the artist is often helpless. However, Swift’s case is unique as she is part of the small group of artists who, in addition to singing their songs, also play a crucial role in their writing. So, after writing every song on her six albums, she continues to keep the “sync rights” to her music in her legal arsenal.
This is why in a move perhaps unprecedented by Ithaca Holdings and Shamrock Holdings, Swift was able to block the use of its songs on all projects requiring a “sync license”. This license is also the reason why Swift is legally allowed to re-record their masters without being sued for copyright infringement, albeit for their songs, by Shamrock Holdings. In addition to this sync license, what turns out to be an advantage for Swift is that the clause prohibiting him from re-recording his songs in his 2005 deal with Big Machine Records would also have expired.
At this point, it’s relevant to understand how a song’s copyright works. The copyright laws of the United States, which are applicable in this case, provide for two types of musical rights. The first being âmaster rightsâ and the second being âpublication rightsâ or âsynchronization rightsâ. As briefly explained above, master rights allow licensees to use the recording of a song. Sync rights, on the other hand, are essential when using music with a moving image, such as in movies and games. Synchronization rights also include rights to musical compositions. So, to legally use a song, the producer of a TV show or commercial would need separate permissions from both the sync rights holders and the primary rights holders.
To take an example, in order for Swift’s music to play in the background of a movie, a producer would need two licenses to play the recording. First, Ithaca Holdings considering they own the masters; and second, from Taylor Swift, considering that the sound played will have to be synchronized with the moving images of the film, a process that will require a synchronization license, a license that Swift continues to own. Thus, it would not be wrong to assume that this practice caused immense economic damage to Ithaca Holdings (which allegedly bought its masters for $ 140 million), severely limiting their use of its songs.
Since its 2015 deal with Big Machine Records, Swift has developed a strong âintellectual property portfolioâ. She exercised her rights not only on album titles and famous phrases (‘This sick beat ‘ and ‘Shake’), a practice followed by the most famous artists; but also deposited other key elements that are an integral part of his brand and his personality, such as, in a fun way, the names of his three famous cats. Swift has fought massive legal battles, like with Apple Music in 2015, rallying to protect artists’ rights to fair compensation for their work. In 2018, Swift also signed an agreement with Universal Music Group. According to this agreement, she will continue to own all of her masters in the future.
In March 2021, she released her re-recorded “version of Taylor” from her debut album Fearless. It contains 20 previously released tracks and seven unreleased tracks. In April 2021, the album would have sold 500,000 copies worldwide. His album Red – Taylor Version recently released on November 12, and received a five-star review by Rolling stone.
Re-registering her albums means that she will create new masters, those of which she will have full ownership. This decision in no way guarantees that the original versions of his albums, those held by Shamrock Holdings, will cease to exist. It also doesn’t mean that his relationship with Scooter, Braun and Shamrock Holdings is out of the woods. Shamrock Holdings will continue to own, use and generate revenue from these songs through streaming and sampling platforms, among many other uses that do not require a sync license. Additionally, in the event that Swift refuses the use of its re-recorded music, individuals are open to contacting Shamrock Holdings for the use of its masters. However, what the re-recorded albums have accomplished and will continue to do, as Swift admits, is to “diminish the value” of its old masters.
There is no question that legally Swift’s defense and course of action in this particular case is not water-tight. However, his fight against Braun and Borchetta is an essential reminder of caution to young artists who are often reluctant to protect themselves from critical clauses when signing recording contracts. Looking at the music storyline from an Indian perspective as well, in 2020 India saw 34.1% growth in the number of independent artists. In a country that boasts of music associated primarily with movies, especially Bollywood, it has been refreshing to see the rise of new local talent.
As this group of independent artists continue to thrive and accelerate their careers by collaborating with renowned record labels, it is pertinent for them to recognize that if the pie is to be shared, they should not be left to seek the crumbs.
It is therefore in this context of young and growing artists that Swift’s fights take on even more importance. They create a dialogue and awareness around the importance of legally safeguarding your art. In addition, they ask record companies to guarantee fair agreements structured on mutual respect and security. Swift’s actions hopefully signal the start of a new era, in which while dealing even with upcoming artists who lack bargaining power, record companies will remain mindful that their business is running late. of account because of the artists themselves. Their relationship is that of skin and bones, one being rendered useless without the other. The move could also inspire powerful artists to restructure and renegotiate their own contracts by leveraging their fame, in turn forcing record companies to grant artists greater control over their work.
In short, Swift’s re-recordings mark the fortification of a recurring message that she has championed with young artists throughout her incredible musical career: âYou deserve to own the art that you make. “
Rhea Rao is a final year law student at Government Law College, Mumbai.