Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group (UMG) are staring down two proposed copyright infringement class action lawsuits filed by artists looking to reclaim ownership of their music. The lawsuits, which contain substantially similar language, were filed in New York’s Southern District by New York Dolls singer David Johansen; John Lyon, known professionally as the leader of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes; Paul Collins, a New York musician, songwriter, and member of The Nerves; John Waite, a singer, songwriter, and former member of The Babys; and Joe Ely, a Texas recording artist with 18 studio albums on his resume.
The lawsuits’ allegations rest heavily on Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976, which provides that authors—songwriters and recording artists—can terminate grants of copyright ownership 35 years after the issuance of the initial grant. This date range, the cases say, is determined from the publication date of the works subject to the copyright grant. For artists, the “second chance” afforded by Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976 is invaluable, the cases continue, in that it’s an opportunity to reclaim not just ownership, but protection of original sound recordings.
Unfortunately, the suits say, many artists who’ve attempted to invoke the protections offered by the Copyright Act of 1976 by way of Notices of Termination have run into unwavering interference from record labels.
According to the complaints, the plaintiffs and hundreds of other recording artists have served Notices of Termination to Sony and UMG in an effort to reclaim the copyrights to their work under Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976. The defendants, the lawsuits allege, have “routinely and systematically refused to honor them,” most often on the grounds that many artists’ music falls outside of the Copyright Act of 1976’s protections because the recordings are, in technical and contractual terms, “works made for hire.”
From the lawsuits:
“These refusals are made, in every instance, on similar legal grounds, the first and foremost of which is [the defendants’] position that the sound recordings created by recording artists under contract with [the defendants] (or [their] affiliated or predecessor companies) are ‘works made for hire,’ and, therefore, not part of the subject matter of §203.”
Wielding certain contractual language found in every recording agreement, Sony and UMG, the suits charge, have refused to allow artists to retake control over sound recordings or enter into an agreement with different labels for sale and exploitation of the recordings after the date of termination of the original copyright. In many instances, according to the lawsuits, the defendants have continued to profit off of recordings after the effective 35-year end date of their initial copyright. The result of Sony and UMG’s conduct, the plaintiffs argue, is that the companies have “effectively stymied any chance that the class plaintiffs have of entering into a new agreement with a third party, or even exploiting the recordings themselves, as is their right.”
The lawsuits look to cover a proposed class of all recording artists and their statutory heirs and, if applicable, personal representatives who have served Notices of Termination to Sony Music Entertainment Inc. and UMG Recordings, Inc. with an effective date of January 1, 2013, or later and who have not entered into any further agreement with either of the entities wherein they’ve been granted further ownership rights.