A federal judge has denied a request for class certification in a lawsuit filed against Universal Music Group (UMG) by multiple artists who are attempting to reclaim their copyrights.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan issued the corresponding order today, after a group of musician plaintiffs (including The Dickies founding members Leonard Graves Phillips and Stan Sobol/Lee, the members of Dream Syndicate, and singer-songwriter Syd Straw) officially moved to obtain class certification last April.
And as noted, the mentioned artists are suing Universal Music over the rights to several decades-old projects. In brief, Section 203 of the Copyright Act is said to afford certain entertainment professionals the opportunity to terminate copyright transfers that were finalized at least 35 years back (but solely for works crafted after the start of 1978), thereby assuming full ownership of the media at hand.
Consequently, a number of artists (including acts who’ve levied different suits as well as individuals outside of the industry altogether) are currently litigating to do just that. And the major labels are for obvious reasons pushing back against these efforts and trying to maintain their grip on potentially valuable masters.
On the latter front, UMG has specifically called into question the validity of the plaintiffs’ termination notices because the Copyright Act’s recapture clause excludes each “work made for hire.” Of course, the plaintiffs have rejected the associated arguments and maintained that the projects in question weren’t made for hire.
In any event, the plaintiffs had been seeking class certification for all artists (or their heirs) who filed termination notices on or after January 1st, 2013. A second proposed class would have encompassed artists and their heirs who filed termination notices after the first class had been certified but before the end of 2031.
After indicating that the aforesaid “work made for hire” argument is central to UMG’s defense, the court explained in detail how “the need for individualized proof” – i.e. whether each of the contracts is or isn’t made for hire – “precludes certification of the proposed classes.”
“Applying the Reid test” – a framework for distinguishing between employees and non-employees when it comes to copyrighted works, that is – “to the artists in Proposed Class A requires evaluating evidence unique to each artist,” today’s order spells out. “Whether and to what degree a record label had the right to control the manner and means of creation depends on the record label’s involvement in the development of the sound recording.”
“The Court makes no determination at this stage as to whether any Plaintiff or proposed class member was an employee of the relevant record label,” the legal text continues. “It merely concludes that this determination will depend on facts peculiar to each proposed class member.”
Similarly, a second work-for-hire test, centering on whether the music had been “specially commissioned,” likewise “requires a highly individualized inquiry,” according to the document. Additionally, determining the validity of a creator’s “termination notice requires individualized evaluation” revolving around reviewing potentially incorrect or missing information.
“Plaintiffs’ claims raise issues of fairness in copyright law that undoubtedly extend beyond their own grievances,” the judge concluded. “However, the individualized evidence and case-by-case evaluations necessary to resolve those claims make this case unsuitable for adjudication on an aggregate basis.”