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Artists Say Universal Music Is Holding Masters ‘Hostage,’ Demand Class Action Status

UMG has "systematically and uniformly" rejected termination notices from a large class of artists, according to a new filing.

Warning that Universal Music Group is holding their rights “hostage,” nine musicians who are suing to regain control of their masters are now demanding that a federal judge let them proceed as a class action, representing potentially hundreds of other UMG artists.

The filing came in a closely-watched case brought by “Missing You” singer John Waite and others over copyright law’s “termination right.” The rule is supposed to let artists take back control of their old music, but the lawsuit says UMG has categorically ignored the obligation when it comes to masters.


In the new motion, Waite and others asked a judge to formally certify their case as a class action – a make-or-break move that would, if granted, sweep up scores more UMG artists who have allegedly also been rebuffed when they tried to take back control of their sound recordings.

“Defendants have systematically and uniformly refused to honor the notices of termination, instead treating these legally effective and vested terminations as ‘invitations to have a discussion’,” Waite and the others wrote on Friday. “Defendants have been holding the artists’ rights hostage and have deprived the artists of the ability to reclaim their rights.”

Waite and other artists sued UMG in February 2019, claiming the label had effectively refused to honor the termination right. The case was filed as a proposed class action, aiming to eventually represent hundreds of others in a similar situation. A nearly-identical case was filed on the same day by the same attorneys against Sony Music Entertainment, claiming it had adopted a similar stance on terminations.

According to the lawsuits, the labels have long claimed that most sound recordings – unlike the underlying musical composition – aren’t subject to the termination rule. The basic argument is that most recordings are so-called works for hire, meaning the label essentially creates them itself and simply hires artists to contribute to them.

If they reach final rulings, the cases against UMG and Sony have major implications for the music industry. Countless other artists have similar arrangements with record labels over highly-lucrative masters, but the legal arguments about when sound recordings are subject to the termination right have thus far only been lightly tested in court.

In Friday’s filing, Waite and the other artists argued that the “fictitious” and “erroneous” arguments have been made by UMG “in every instance” that an artist invokes the termination right – meaning they represent the kind of “systematic wrongful conduct” that is best addressed by a huge class action.

“Plaintiffs seek class certification here to tear down a central structural element crafted by these record labels decades ago … that they use to deny recording artists their federally protected rights,” Waite wrote. “Through these fictions and artifices, Defendants steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that any recording artist (or his or her successor) has the right to take over control of the sound recordings.”

A spokesman for UMG did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday (April 18).

Though the cases against UMG and Sony have moved along in parallel track, a similar motion has not yet been filed in the case against Sony. That case, filed by another set of musicians led by former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, is paused for settlement talks until at least May 18.