Legal and Management

Dwight Yoakam Sues Warner Music Group to Reclaim Early Recordings

Dwight Yoakam photographed in 2015
Emily Joyce

Dwight Yoakam

Country singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam is suing his label Warner Music Group (WMG) for not handing back the rights to his early recordings.

Yoakam says that his demands to reclaim his ownership rights to songs on his 1984 chart-topping debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., including "Honky Tonk Man," "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "It Won't Hurt" as well as their corresponding music videos from WMG have either been denied or ignored, according to a 25-page complaint filed Tuesday in California federal court. Yoakam’s team claims that the singer’s basic right of being allowed to recapture his copyrights granted by the Copyright Act of 1976 are are being obstructed by WMG, “a corporation that has already made millions of dollars off of the works of Mr. Yoakam.”

Yoakam is demanding the court affirmatively rule that the songs should automatically return to him at the end of the right’s period termination. He is also seeking an excess of $1 million in damages against WMG.

“Having profited and benefited off of Mr. Yoakam for 35 years, [WMG] do not want their gravy train to end, and have therefore refused to acknowledge and accept Mr. Yoakam’s valid Notices of Termination served properly under Section 203 of the United States Copyright of 1976 in blatant disregard of Mr. Yoakam’s rights,” states the complaint.

The Copyright Act permits authors to terminate the grant of their copyright during a five-year window beginning five years from the end of 35 years from the date of execution of the grant; or, if the grant covers the right of publication of the work, the period begins at the end of 35 years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever term ends earlier. This “second bite at the apple” is extremely valuable to authors, the complaint states, as it allows them to finally own their creations as well as financially benefit from the works, states the court papers.

Yoakam’s attorney Richard Busch says in the complaint that the singer's managers and transactional counsel have had numerous phone calls over the past two years with WMG about Yoakam’s plan to recapture his rights and sent formal termination notices. Instead of handing back the rights, however, the complaint states that WMG responded by taking down works by Yoakam and informing his legal team that “we have not yet made a decision as to how to proceed” with the works contained in the termination notices, according to Yoakam’s complaint.

Busch said his client is “being irreparably injured every day” that WMG fails to recognize the validity of the notices. He said his client’s work is essentially being held hostage “paralyzing Mr. Yoakam from financially benefiting from his statutory right to terminate the transfer of his copyrights to WMG.” Busch argues in the complaint that “Yoakam’s works return to him by virtue of his statutory right ingrained in the Copyright Act, regardless of what the defendants “decide.”

WMG has not yet responded to a request for comment.