The Legal Beat: UMG Faces Looming Battle Over Copyright Termination
Also this week: Post Malone heads to trial over his smash hit "Circles," Nicki Minaj aims to punish an opposing lawyer over "disgraceful" conduct, and more.
This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between.
This week: Universal Music Group faces a looming showdown over copyright terminations, Post Malone heads to trial with over his smash hit “Circles,” Nicki Minaj aims to punish an opposing lawyer over “disgraceful” conduct, and more.
THE BIG STORY: The Termination Showdown Has Arrived
There’s been no shortage of recent music lawsuits over the termination right, that pesky little power to claw back control of copyrighted works decades after they were sold away. Brian Wilson is doing it. Cher is doing it. 2 Live Crew is doing it. Dwight Yoakam and Warner Music were doing it until recently. But those cases are relatively small potatoes, at least when compared to two class actions filed against Universal Music Group and Sony Music that seek to let hundreds of recording artists use the termination right to win back their masters. Those cases, filed in 2019 and rolling on at a low boil until this week, are overtly aimed at a more disruptive outcome. “Plaintiffs seek class certification here to tear down a central structural element crafted by these record labels decades ago,” UMG’s accusers wrote this week, “that they use to deny recording artists their federally protected rights.” At issue in the cases is the alleged refusal of both UMG and Sony to honor the termination right when it comes to sound recordings. Unlike underlying musical compositions, the labels have apparently told artists that recordings are mostly off-limits. The argument for that? That recordings are “works for hire,” meaning the label essentially creates the masters itself, and simply hires artists to contribute to them. There’s little clear case law on whether such an argument holds water, but needless to say, it has major implications for the music industry. There are countless other artists who have similar arrangements with record labels over highly-lucrative masters, and every year another batch of them become eligible for termination. A precedent-setting decision will make a big splash, regardless of which way it goes. The Sony case remains paused for settlement talks, but the UMG case leapt back to life this week when the label’s accusers demanded that the case be certified as a class action. If granted, such class certification would vastly increase the case’s size, jumping from nine aggrieved UMG artists to potentially more than 200. “Defendants have systematically and uniformly refused to honor the notices of termination,” the artists wrote. “Defendants have been holding the artists’ rights hostage and have deprived the artists of the ability to reclaim their rights.”
Other top stories this week…
POST MALONE HEADED TO TRIAL – A federal judge refused to end a lawsuit against Post Malone that claims he failed to credit a co-writer of his smash-hit “Circles,” sending the case toward a trial as soon as next month. The judge ruled that producer and songwriter Tyler Armes might ultimately be able to prove his allegation that he played a key role during an August 2018 studio session and deserves co-credit for an early song that later morphed into the hit song. TEKASHI GHOSTED ON CONCERT DEAL, STREAMER SAYS – Tekashi 6ix9ine was hit with a new lawsuit claiming the rapper breached a deal with a streaming music service to perform two live-streamed concerts. Streamusic claims that it paid the rapper $150,000 to play the shows and promote them on Instagram, but that he did nothing on social media even when repeatedly asked – and then flaked on the concerts entirely. The company doesn’t just want the $150,000 back; it demanded $2 million damages for the “significant financial and reputational damage” caused by the canceled shows. “BAD FAITH, FRIVOLOUS, AND INDEED EXTORTIONATE” – That Nicki Minaj lawsuit (you know the one) got even weirder this week, when the rapper’s attorney Judd Burstein demanded severe sanctions against opposing counsel Tyrone Blackburn over allegations of “reprehensible” and “disgraceful” conduct during the case. Blackburn then fired back with bizarre accusations of drug abuse and adultery – not against Burstein, but against his own former co-counsel. Stay tuned. Or don’t? DR. LUKE v. KESHA UPDATE – Kesha was hit with another setback in Dr. Luke’s long-running defamation lawsuit, which claims that she fabricated an accusation of rape against the producer. Citing long-expired deadlines for new evidence, a New York appeals court ruled that the pop star cannot cite handwritten notes from 2006 that her attorneys have called “critical evidence” to her defense. “Discovery deadlines are intended to prevent exactly this,” the court wrote. After eight years of litigation, a trial is set for early next year. ACCUSED RUN-D.M.C. KILLER WANTS CHARGES DROPPED – Karl Jordan, Jr., one of two men accused of killing Run-D.M.C.‘s Jam Master Jay in 2002, asked a judge to throw out the murder charges, arguing that the feds violated his constitutional right to due process by waiting nearly two decades before “hauling him into court.” Jordan says the long wait (he wasn’t charged until 2020 for Jay’s long-unsolved murder) means that key evidence, like cell phone records that would support his alibi, are no longer available. A trial is tentatively set for February 2023. ASTROWORLD DOC SPARKS DISPUTE – “Concert Crush,” a new documentary over the tragedy at Astroworld, became the latest flashpoint in the massive lawsuit over the deadly festival. Live Nation warned a judge that it might “taint” the jury pool – and pointedly noted that the film is being produced by a lawyer involved in the case. Several victims’ attorneys quickly fired back, calling Live Nation’s letter a “transparent ‘tattle-tale’ letter” and a “generic complaint” with no real legal purpose. BILLY JOEL ENDS FIGHT OVER MANSION RENOVATION – Billy Joel reached a settlement to end a copyright lawsuit – not over a song, but over a home renovation blueprint. The singer and a Long Island contractor agreed to end a lawsuit claiming that Joel and others ripped off copyrighted architectural designs for a renovations project at his Oyster Bay mansion. The contractor claimed he was abruptly fired and the plans were illegally handed over to a new builder. No specific terms of the settlement agreement were publicly released. MAC MILLER DRUG DEALER SENTENCED – Ryan Michael Reavis, a man charged with supplying fentanyl-laced pills before Mac Miller’s fatal 2018 overdose, was sentenced to almost 11 years in prison. Reavis pleaded guilty in November to supplying counterfeit oxycodone pills to the drug dealer who eventually sold them to Miller. The sentence was less than the 12-plus years sought by prosecutors, but more than double the five years sought by Reavis’ lawyers.