Lawyer Bill Krasilovsky, Who Fought for Songwriters & Their Heirs to Reclaim Royalties, Dies at 92

Bill Krasilovsky Robert S. Meloni
Courtesy of Robert S. Meloni

Bill Krasilovsky and Robert S. Meloni

He reportedly represented the estates of 138 songwriters, including Duke Ellington.

M. William Krasilovsky, the co-author of This Business of Music and a lawyer who fought for the heirs of Fats Waller and Popeye creator Elzie C. Segar to reclaim copyright ownership and royalties, died on Oct. 7 due to congestive heart failure in Ashland, Oregon. He was 92.

During his long career, he was general counsel for Music Publishing Holding Corp., the then-named music-publishing arm for Warner Music; a trustee for the Copyright Society of America; and associate counsel to the Songwriters Guild of America, among other accomplishments. A New York Times article from 2007 said he represented the estates of 138 songwriters, including Duke Ellington.

Below, lawyer Robert S. Meloni, who Krasilovsky hired right out of law school, remembers his mentor.

I first met Bill Krasilovsky in 1980. I’d just graduated law school and was struggling to find a field of law that would interest me. My brother Tony -- with whom I was then building and restoring pipe organs -- mentioned how his friend and college music professor had a lawyer, Bill Krasilovsky, who was a big shot in the music industry. I was intrigued; music was my passion, but law would be my vocation. I had no idea I could potentially work in both fields. I did some research and learned that Bill was a renowned expert in copyright law and the arcane machinations of music publishing. I contacted him at his boutique law firm, Feinman & Krasilovsky. To my surprise, he agreed to meet with me.

Feinman & Krasilovsky was a small but influential music law firm which, according to Bill, had no need for associates or clerks. Nevertheless, we hit it off and by the end of our conversation I’d convinced him to hire me.

Bill was a natural teacher and I was an eager student. Many days we would spend sitting on the floor of his Madison Avenue office poring through his collection of red leather-bound copyright law decisions, which were replete with dog-eared or paper-clipped pages and small scraps of paper masquerading as bookmarks. It was as much school as it was work, for both of us. “Why am I paying you? You should be paying me!” he’d holler. This line soon became a running joke between us. Years later I came to appreciate the complexity of our mentor/mentee relationship when I hired young clerks or associates that needed both training and a salary.

Not many people outside of Bill’s law practice knew the intricate workings of his quirky little world, which ranged from dictating mundane music contracts (which I revised using scraps of paper, scissors and paste) to forays into esoteric legal odysseys about complex copyright issues and conversations that were replete with non-sequiturs because his mouth couldn’t keep pace with his mind. His response to any request for clarification was always, “Just a minute please!” It proved effective in getting people (i.e. me) to shut up so he could finish a thought without interruptions.

My strongest memories of Bill always include his impish smile. That never changed over the 38 years I knew him. His was the face of a good-hearted man who had a well-earned reputation for generosity. Bill had an innate penchant for helping people, particularly artists, and he had a huge soft spot for those most in need of his help, like up-and-coming musicians who couldn’t afford legal counsel, or heirs of famous and once-famous deceased songwriters or artists who were unable to capitalize on the success of their parents.

One of these cases concerned the renewal copyrights for the character Popeye. The creator, Elzie C. Segar, had died in 1938 at the age of 43, leaving behind a wife and two small children. King Features Syndicate, Segar’s employer, had claimed the copyrights to the comic strip as a work for hire. After Segar’s death, King Features had stopped payment of all contractual royalties, depriving his family of that much-needed income stream. A New York court reinstated the contractual royalties in 1941, but Bill discovered almost 40 years later that the Segar heirs had a chance at recapturing the termination interest for the extended copyright term, despite the work-for-hire status claimed by King Features. It was a textbook example of a case destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, since it dealt with novel issues relating to works made for hire under the 1909 Copyright Act. Eager at the time to embark on a great legal adventure, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed when Bill was able to quickly negotiate a settlement that provided the heirs an annual lifetime annuity.

I could write a book of examples of Bill’s proclivity for helping people. Years after I’d established my own law practice, a former client of Bill’s stopped by the office when I happened to be there visiting. His office reminded me of a law professor’s lair, with open books and piles of papers scattered across his desk. On the wall behind his desk chair, he had a lithograph autographed by his client Peter Max and a photograph signed by his longtime client Chuck Berry: “To Bill, from Chuck.” The day of my visit, I recognized Bill’s former client, since many years earlier he was a very successful musical artist, but those days looked to be long gone. Now he was a recovering drug addict who had spent time in prison. He was broke, though he did have royalties from the songs he had written years before trickling in every few months. I watched Bill as he patiently worked out a plan to collect the money for this former client and give him just enough each week to pay his basic overhead, but not enough to tempt a relapse. Most lawyers I knew would’ve charged a hefty fee for the administration of such a tedious chore, but not Bill. Over the years Bill took care of many details like this for his less fortunate clients and never even thought of taking compensation for it.

Another of those clients were the heirs of Thomas “Fats” Waller, who Bill said “was improvident in 1929” because he sold the copyrights to the songs comprising the musical revue called Connie's Hot Chocolates¸ including its opening number “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” for a $500 flat fee in order to stay out of what he called “alimony jail.” Many years later, in a case involving complex issues of copyright renewal and estate law, Bill helped the heirs of Fats Waller recapture the benefits of his valuable musical copyrights. In his will, Waller’s oldest son, Thomas Waller Jr., eventually established a trust for the benefit of Howard University Law School for the purposes of teaching young black lawyers how to protect future generations against the carelessness shown by Waller’s improvident sale of “Ain't Misbehavin.’”

These stories are not atypical for Bill and, given a career that spanned more than six decades, are too numerous to mention.

The list of Bill’s professional accomplishments is long. Early in his career he was general counsel for Warner Bros. Music, then the world’s largest music company, where he worked on the budding careers of Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary and others, and provided counsel related to standards such as “Stand By Me,” “Georgia On My Mind” and “California Here I Come.” Later, he became a trustee of the Copyright Society of America, associate counsel to the Songwriters Guild of America and an adjunct professor at New York University, where he taught a course on ethics in the entertainment business. He also served as special counsel to the United Nations as a music business consultant, helping manage a major music industry gift to UNICEF, celebrated with a concert at the UN featuring the top musical talent of that era. Many of his clients were the estates or heirs of authors of evergreen songs. He sometimes joked that his clients were “mostly dead people,” but that belied the fact that they were a collection of beloved writers like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fats Waller, Robert Johnson and Lorenz Hart.

The music industry era of Bill’s early practice is long gone. Small independent music labels and publishers have been replaced by major international conglomerates. Bill witnessed firsthand the technological evolution of the music industry during the mid-20th century, starting with the emergence of FM radio, commercial television, LPs, 8-tracks, MP3s, CDs, video and DVDs and, eventually, music streaming. He called these new developments “old wine in new bottles,” because the fundamental issues of the business -- although ever more complex -- remained unchanged. Through it all, Bill focused on advocating for the rights of artists and songwriters and their heirs. He believed that the role of an attorney in the “shark-infested waters of the music industry” was to act as both advisor and watchdog. He was old school in the truest sense; he believed he was a member of an honorable profession where music lawyers needed to conduct themselves in a manner that placed ethics over earnings.

Throughout his career, Bill Krasilovsky worked at the forefront of developments in copyright law. In 1971 he inspired Miriam Stern, former head of the American Guild of Authors and Composers, and the New York music publisher Freddy Bienstock, to pursue foreign royalties for 40,000 songs including “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” He was at the center of the landmark U.K. case Redwood Music Ltd. v. Chapel & Co. Ltd. that culminated in a House of Lords decision altering British copyright law and resulted in the recapture of British reversionary interests under section 5.2 of the U.K. Copyright Act. When the nearly three-decade long court battle finally ended in 1995, it brought millions of dollars to the estates of 177 U.S. composers and governs the rights to their works in 35 countries.

For over 50 years Bill commuted from his home in Westchester to his office in the city. He often left work early so that he could spend quality time with his wife, Phyllis, an accomplished journalist and writer of children’s books. They had married while Bill was still in law school at Cornell. After Phyllis’ death in 2014, Bill retired from his law practice at the age of 88 and moved to Oregon to be near his son Peter and his wife Sharon. In his retirement, Bill enjoyed river rafting, attended political marches and music festivals, as well as museums and the theater. It was the first time since law school that his life was not defined by the music industry and its community.

However, Bill’s love of copyright law remained steadfast, even in his retirement. Over these past four years, he and I often exchanged emails and engaged in extended phone conversations about recent court cases and developments in copyright law. I will dearly miss those conversations, and my friend Bill.

Bill Krasilovsky is survived by four children: Alexis Krasilovsky of Los Angeles; Jessica Krasilovsky of New York; Margaret Krasilovsky Brookes of London, England; and Peter Krasilovsky of Ashland, Oregon; and one grandchild.

Robert S. Meloni is a lawyer based in New York City specializing in entertainment and intellectual property. He is the founding member of Meloni & McCaffrey.