Judge Allows Universal Music Class-Action Lawsuit to Proceed; Suit Also Filed Against Sony Music

Universal Music
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Universal Music
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(photo: Bill Oxford)

Earlier today, a U.S. District Court judge allowed a class-action lawsuit filed against Universal Music Group (UMG) to proceed. 

In February, five musicians submitted two class-action complaints claiming that Sony Music and Universal Music unlawfully denied them the opportunity to terminate (and regain control of) their copyrights approximately 35 years after the corresponding albums’ releases.

In turn, said musicians—including New York Dolls founding member David Johansen and “Missing You” creator John Waite—are alleging copyright infringement and seeking declaratory relief. (The latter refers to a court decision independent of damages or an order, to determine which side of the case is correct.) 

Johansen filed the lawsuit against Sony Music, whereas Waite filed the lawsuit against Universal Music. The legal actions chiefly rely upon Section 203 of the Copyright Act, which became law in 1976. In essence, Section 203 (potentially) enables those responsible for creating copyrighted content for others to reclaim the copyrights after 35 years (excepting specially commissioned assignments, including some work-for-hire projects). 

An array of 80s movie stars are seeking to regain their copyrights from film studios under Section 203, similarly to how Waite and Johansen are attempting to secure their copyrights from UMG and Sony Music, respectively. 

Now, after weighing each side’s arguments, District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan approved Universal Music’s motion to dismiss the aforementioned declaratory-relief request and two measures pertaining to the works of veteran artist Joe Ely. The other components of the motion to dismiss, however, were denied. 

The plaintiffs are being represented by Blank Rome, a prominent legal firm with 14 offices and more than 600 lawyers to its credit. Addressing Judge Kaplan’s ruling to allow the case to proceed, Blank Rome Partner Roy Arnold said: “We’re gratified that the Court rejected Universal’s core arguments and look forward to proceeding with the case to vindicate the recording artists’ rights.”

It’s unclear at this time when the matter’s corresponding trial will begin; the process will likely be delayed by the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  Other cases have also been postponed, including a heavily-watched copyright infringement lawsuit against The Weeknd.