Dwight Yoakam Sues Warner Music Group for Refusing to Hand Back His Masters

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Dwight Yoakam performing live. Photo Credit: SD Dirk

Country star Dwight Yoakam has filed a lawsuit against Warner Music Group (WMG) over the Big Three label’s alleged failure to hand back his master recordings.

“A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” creator Dwight Yoakam recently submitted the 25-page-long complaint to a California federal court, and Digital Music News obtained an exclusive copy of the corresponding filing. The 64-year-old singer-songwriter signed with Warner Music Group back in 1985, according to the legal text, and has released 20 studio albums (as well as several compilation and live albums) across his nearly four-decade-long career.

The first of these studio albums, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., consists of six tracks from a (pre-WMG deal) LP as well as four previously unreleased works from Yoakam. Moreover, this debut album became available to fans on March 12th, 1986 – meaning that its 35th anniversary is less than one month away, while its “effective termination date” under the Copyright Act of 1976 will arrive on March 3rd.

In brief, the Copyright Act’s Section 203 states that the copyrights associated with “any work other than a work made for hire” can be terminated by their creators after 35 years, and on the effective date of termination, “all rights under this title that were covered by the terminated grants revert to the author, authors, and other persons owning termination interests under clauses.”

As a result, a number of 1980s film stars are currently battling to regain ownership of their copyrights from studios, while both Sony Music and Universal Music are also facing lawsuits centering on termination notices.

According to this master-rights complaint, however, Warner Music higher-ups, “having profited and benefitted off of Mr. Yoakam for 35 years…do not want their gravy train to end, and have therefore refused to acknowledge and accept” the notices of termination submitted by the two-time Grammy winner (and 18-time nominee).

Aside from sending these termination notices, Yoakam “went above and beyond the statutory requirements,” per the filing, including by allegedly facilitating “numerous phone calls” between his team and WMG during the last two years. Each of these discussions, however, allegedly saw the defendants suggest terms for a new deal without acknowledging the fast-approaching termination dates.

Dwight Yoakam, who has a role in Clint Eastwood’s upcoming Cry Macho film, sent a “final letter” to Warner Music last month, according to the suit, going as far as including a draft of the complaint with the message. Higher-ups responded that some of the tracks in question “would be ‘taken down’” – a move that’s reduced Yoakam’s streaming revenue and overall earnings – and relayed that they hadn’t yet “‘made a decision’” about their overarching stance on the matter.

Pikeville, Kentucky-born Yoakam and attorney Richard Busch stated that WMG is “implicitly recognizing” the termination notices by taking down the tracks to avoiding infringing upon the copyright, in addition to noting that the label is “essentially holding Mr. Yoakam’s copyrights hostage.”

The remaining works’ termination dates are spaced out over the coming years, with the latest set to arrive on March 22nd, 2028. Yoakam, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, is seeking declaratory relief as well as damages for copyright infringement or conversion, and at the time of publishing, Warner Music hadn’t publicly addressed the suit.