Universal Music Is Battling to Nullify the 35-Year Copyright Termination Right

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Universal Music Group headquarters in Santa Monica, CA.

Under the Copyright Act, authors have the option to terminate a grant following a 35-year wait, allowing them to claim ownership over their works.  Universal Music Group (UMG) doesn’t want that to happen.

So, to avoid this problem, UMG has filed a motion to dismiss a key lawsuit.

Putting the Copyright Act to the test, artists John Waite and Joe Ely filed a lawsuit against UMG last February.  Taking on Sony Music Entertainment, David Johansen, John Lyon, and Paul Collins also took the major label to court.

According to both lawsuits filed in a New York federal court last February, both UMG and Sony have “routinely and systematically refused to honor” the 35-year termination request.

As explained earlier, the Copyright Act of 1976 allows artists to terminate copyright grants, thus gaining ownership of their songs.  Yet, the law has a key exception which major labels have readily exploited.

The labels argue specific clauses in recording contracts – including “works made for hire” – make it impossible for artists to reclaim their work.  The artists – now counted as ‘employees’ – made the work on labels’ behalf.  Thus, UMG and Sony Music technically own the works, as they’re listed as the songs’ statutory authors.

In their lawsuit against Universal, Waite and Ely explained,

As a result of UMG’s policy, UMG has refused to acknowledge that any recording artist has the right to take over control of the sound recordings, or enter into an agreement with a different label for the exploitation of recordings, after the effective date of termination.

In addition, by refusing to grant the termination clause, the major label has willfully engaged in copyright infringement.

In many instances, UMG has continued to exploit the recordings after the effective date, thereby engaging in willful copyright infringement of the United States copyright in those recordings.

Both the Universal and Sony lawsuits have asked a federal judge to rule that sound recordings remain ineligible under the “works made for hire” provision.

In its motion to dismiss filed last Friday, Universal Music Group listed four key problems with Waite and Ely’s case.

First, Waite and Ely – along with other artists – signed contracts with UMG through their own corporate entities (i.e., loan-out companies).  Thus, they can’t personally terminate these agreements.

Second, key problems exist with the termination notices they’ve submitted.  Both Waite and Ely haven’t completely specified which works they want terminated.

Third, Waite and Ely’s respective contracts included “work for hire” notations.  If they had a problem with the clause, they should’ve disputed the matter before signing.

Fourth, Ely signed the record deal before 1978.  Thus, his copyright grant remains ineligible for termination.

You can view UMG’s motion to dismiss below.


Featured image by coolcaesar (CC by 3.0).

3 Responses

  1. Caveat Emptor

    This should lead to a creative boycott of Universal Music Group.

    You cannot do good business with bad people.

  2. Baby GAR Figuer

    So, this just goes to show you who the real crooks are and its one of the big top 3 labels. Being independent and learning the business side of music is the best way to go!

    • Faza (TCM)

      While I don’t disagree with the sentiment, business knowledge is one thing – having working capital a different matter entirely.