Gloria Gaynor was the star name at "How Stella Got Her Masters Back," a catchily- (though not necessarily accurately)-named panel discussing reversion rights for artists who want to get the copyrights to their songs back from labels.
The facts of the debate are clear: in 1978, Congress passed a law saying that if an artist assigns copyrights to material to another party, the copyrights revert to the artist after 35 years, which would begin in 2013. The exception to this comes if the material is considered "work for hire," as in, work that was commissioned by the second party. The debate for artists versus labels comes in what, exactly, "work for hire" entails.
The panel - which turned chippy at times as legal interpretations were swapped back and forth - was moderated by Daryl Friedman of the Recording Academy, and featured lawyers Ken Abdo (who represents artists) and Eric German (representing labels) squaring off on the issue.
"If 'work for hire' is in writing, that makes an artist an employee of a label, and content becomes the property of the employer," said Abdo, noting that sound recordings are not covered or mentioned in the law. "Artists don't believe that recording contracts are the same [type of contract]."
German argued that that same employer-employee relationship is clearly covered in the law, and that "work for hire" covers compilations of materials, such as albums. "The reason the law doesn't include sound recordings is an accident of history," he said, as mastered recordings were only included under copyright law beginning in 1971. The labels, which paid to record, produce, and distribute the tracks, hired the artist to create the songs. "Just because you performed on a song does not mean you own it."
Gaynor has a unique perspective, as her song "I Will Survive" came out in 1978, and thus is part of the first wave of songs that will be turning 35 years old since the law went into effect. "The reason this record continues to be popular is because I'm going to over 80 countries to promote it," she said, adding "even indentured slaves get let go sooner or later."
Abdo predicts that record labels will begin restructuring label deals with profitable artists and settle out of court, as litigation and legislation will be too costly and time-consuming for them to deal with individually. Whatever the outcome, another fact is rising to the top: the reversion battle is looming closer and closer for artists and labels.