Copyright Law: Taylor Swift's Legal Issue
Taylor Swift is a cultural phenomenon. She is a singer and songwriter who released her first single in 2006 when she was 16 and has remained in the spotlight since that time. Taylor is currently on a tour that has been compared to the Super Bowl in terms of economic impact. Taylor Swift has become a household name; she is a mega-star! But along with major success came battles with copyright law.
Her first six albums were released under the record label Big Machine. Like most standard contracts in the music industry, this contract gave control of the actual recording (the “master” recording) to the record label.
Once Taylor became TAYLOR, she wanted control of her master recordings for the first six albums. She attempted to negotiate a new agreement with Big Machine, but they couldn’t reach a deal. Taylor left Big Machine and signed a deal with a different label; one that would give her control of all future master recordings. Big Machine retained control of the older master recordings. The masters were then acquired by Scooter Braun, one of Taylor’s nemeses.
Copyright Law is Wonky!
Intellectual Property law is peculiar. Copyright law is wonky. Music rights within copyright law is down-right bizarre. Copyright generally covers works of art, including music. The person that makes a permanent recording of the art is the author, and the author is the original owner. Within the world of music, there are two sets of rights: the rights in the composition and the rights in the master recording itself. The owner of each piece has a different type of control. These rules can be changed by contract. Confusing, right?
These rules can create a variety of outcomes. A standard contract usually assigns the rights in the recording to the record company. Thus, a musician who does not compose their own music may not own any copyright in their music. Fortunately for Taylor, she did write her own music, so she always owned the composition rights. Unfortunately, she does not own the master recording, Big Machine does.
To Further Clarify
The owner of the master recording usually has the rights necessary to publicize the recording. This includes the rights in the sound recording, plus related videos and album art. The owner of the master recording also receives the royalties every time the song plays.
The owner of the composition owns the “sync rights.” This allows the song to be used in advertisements, movies, and other non-traditional uses of the song. While these rights are very important in allowing music to become more widely distributed, only the owner of the master recording receives royalties.
For Taylor, this means that she is not making a dime from every time her music is played on a streaming app or radio station, etc.. However, she can prevent or allow her songs from being used in other forms of media like movies and television. Another relevant legal aspect in this case is that Taylor has the right to re-record her music five years after the original was recorded. This time period lapsed for all six albums, and Taylor is realizing her rights under this provision.
Look What You Made Me Do
Taylor’s original contract gives her record label ownership of the master recordings. This same agreement also allows Taylor the right to re-record this music after five years. While re-recording over 80 songs is a huge undertaking, Taylor is in the process of doing so, and re-releasing her original six albums one at a time. For example, she released “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” in July 2023, and has just announced the release of “1989 (Taylor’s Version).”
There are now two master recordings for all of these songs. Scooter Braun owns the old versions, and Taylor owns the new versions. Now, if Taylor wants to use the song “Bad Blood” in a movie about how much she hates Scooter Braun, she can use the new version and make sure he doesn’t get any royalties from it. Thankfully due to Taylor’s supportive fan base, her new recordings are receiving the most airplay, giving her (and not Scooter) the royalties.
To her credit, Taylor doesn’t want to be the only one to benefit from this experience. She is also calling attention to the standards in the industry and trying to protect future artists from falling prey to these rules. Maybe it’s time for these rules to change? After all, the industry itself has certainly changed and artists are not as reliant on the promotional arm of record companies as they once were.