The “Bad Blood" Between Record Labels and Artists as Shown by Taylor Swift - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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The “Bad Blood” Between Record Labels and Artists as Shown by Taylor Swift

The “Bad Blood” Between Record Labels and Artists as Shown by Taylor Swift

This past summer, Taylor Swift appeared in the media for reasons other than her newly released album: the culprits being her previous six albums. The masters, or sound recordings, to her back catalog were purchased by Ithaca Holdings, along with the rest of the Big Machine Record Label in July.1 These masters are what someone hears when they play the “Speak Now” record, not the actual musical composition or lyrics.2 Questions surrounding copyright and ownership of Swift’s published music under Big Machine swirled in the following days.3 Copyright law affords the copyright holder the right to perform said songs, so fans will still hear her biggest hits on tour.4 As the person who penned the lyrics to her songs, she is the copyright holder, and will still earn royalties from streaming, downloads, and physical sales.5 However, a percentage will go to Ithaca, as the master and the copyright holders split the profits according to whatever contract the artist signed when negotiating a record deal.6 Contract deals, such as the one a preteen Swift made, sign away master rights and profits from the artist, who have little to no bargaining power against recording labels as an unknown singer.7

This type of business deal is nothing new. Michael Jackson’s purchase of the Beatles catalog is one famous example.8 In the 1960s, Northern Songs, who owned the band’s masters, was sold to ATV Music, leaving Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band without publishing control of the music they had worked on for the better part of a decade.9 Ironically, Paul McCartney’s attempt to educate a young Michael Jackson on the value of owning the publishing rights to one’s music led to the “Thriller” singer’s subsequent purchase of ATV’s catalog.10 It was not until 2017 when McCartney was able to receive an undisclosed settlement with Sony/ATV Publishing on the issue.11 Prince sold his 1997 album “Crystal Ball” directly to fans who preordered by phone or internet, avoiding the possibility of the label taking a share of the profits.12 Prince certainly viewed labels as thieves and jailers, as evidenced by his walking around with the word “slave” on his cheek in the mid-1990s, the height of his music ownership controversy.13 Like Prince once did, Swift will re-record album tracks from previous works to own a new master recording.14

The murkiness of who owns which portions of the intellectual property of a song like “Blank Space” or “Purple Rain” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and how much one profits from it, is a problem that Swift has actively fought to resolve. Just months before the Big Machine Records deal went public, Swift moved to Universal Music Group, and as a condition of her signing there, UMG agreed to give its artists a portion of the profits from its Spotify shares.15 Swift had the power to renegotiate contracts on behalf of those who otherwise could not.16 While Swift may not have legal recourse to the contract she made as a teenager with Big Machine, her situation has shone a light on the types of contracts singers and songwriters often make with larger labels in the modern day. And with a spotlight, change is sometimes not too far behind.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Bravick Photography.


  1. Sorace, Stephen, Taylor Swift’s Feud with Scooter Braun: What to Know About the Sale of Big Machine Records, Fox News (July 1, 2018), https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/taylor-swift-scooter-braun-big-machine-records-feud-what-to-know. [https://perma.cc/7NUR-GM9J]

  2. Peter S. Menell et al., Intellectual Property in the Technological Age: 2018: Vol. II Copyrights, Trademarks, and State IP Protections (2018).

  3. Sorace, Stephen, Taylor Swift’s Feud with Scooter Braun: What to Know About the Sale of Big Machine Records, Fox News (July 1, 2018), https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/taylor-swift-scooter-braun-big-machine-records-feud-what-to-know.

  4. 17 U.S.C. § 114 (2018).

  5. Manatt, Phelps, & Philips, LLP, US Music Streaming Royalties Explained (2016), https://www.manatt.com/Manatt/media/Media/PDF/US-Streaming-Royalties-Explained.pdf. [https://perma.cc/V4RD-JMED]

  6. Id.

  7. Gary A. Greenberg, The Plight of the American Musician: A Study of Comparative Copyright Law and Proposed Performers’ Protection Act, 6 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 31, 48 (1986).

  8. Rhys, Dan, A Brief History of the Ownership of the Beatles Catalog, Billboard (Jan. 1, 2017), https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/7662519/beatles-catalog-paul-mccartney-brief-history-ownership. [https://perma.cc/4VB9-LABG]

  9. Id.

  10. Id.

  11. Stempel, Jonathan, Paul McCartney Settles with Sony/ATV over Beatles Music Rights, Thompson Reuters (June 30, 2017), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-people-paulmccartney-idUSKBN19L2ET. [https://perma.cc/5B7R-GQ5M]

  12. Newman, Melina, Inside Prince’s Career-Long Battle to Master His Artistic Destiny, BILLBOARD (April 28, 2016), https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/cover-story/7348551/prince-battle-to-control-career-artist-rights. [https://perma.cc/HQK3-BM6G]

  13. Davis, Lisa Kay, Prince Fought Big Labels for Ownership, Artistic Control, NBC (Apr. 21, 2016), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/prince-fought-big-labels-ownership-artistic-control-n560161. [https://perma.cc/53U6-8K4G]

  14. Andrews, Travis M., Can Taylor Swift Really Rerecord her Entire Music Catalogue?, Wash. Post (Aug. 22, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2019/08/22/can-taylor-swift-really-rerecord-her-entire-music-catalogue/?noredirect=on. [https://perma.cc/7YYB-NHEE]

  15. Wang, Amy X., Taylor Swift’s New Record Deal Affects Thousands of Other Musicians, Rolling Stone (Nov. 19, 2018), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/taylor-swift-universal-republic-deal-spotify-758102/. [https://perma.cc/K9B7-T96A]

  16. Id.

Meagan Lemley

Meagan Lemley is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and is a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media, and Entertainment Law Journal. She also serves on the executive boards for Fordham’s Media and Entertainment Law Society as well as the Wormser Chapter for the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity. Meagan holds a B.A. in Law and Society from American University.