Sony Music Says It’s Reached a Settlement in the Copyright Recapture Suit Filed by Southside Johnny and Others

copyright recapture
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copyright recapture
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A live performance from David Johansen, one of the artists who filed a copyright-recapture action against Sony Music. Photo Credit: Man Alive!

Sony Music Entertainment (SME) says it’s reached a settlement in the class-action copyright recapture lawsuit levied by Southside Johnny (real name John Lyon), New York Dolls founding member David Johansen (known also as Buster Poindexter), the professional behind the namesake Paul Collins’ Beat, and others.

SME attorneys just recently informed the court of the “agreement in principle” to settle the entirety of the case, which, in addition to the mentioned plaintiffs, was submitted by musicians Michael Gregory Jackson and David Swanson.

For reference, Section 203 of the Copyright Act is said to enable certain entertainment (not solely music) professionals to terminate copyright transfers finalized under non-work-for-hire agreements at least 35 years ago but in or after 1978 – thereby assuming ownership of the involved projects.

(The presence of work-for-hire clauses in many deals, including those at issue here, has proven important in recapture litigation. “The ‘work made for hire’ language alone, in the recording agreement, is insufficient to establish that a work is, in fact, made for hire and recognizes that the yet-to-be-created sound recordings will not qualify as a ‘work made for hire’ in the absence of a bona fide employment relationship,” the lawsuit communicated on this front.)

Consequently, a number of legacy acts have in recent years moved to reclaim potentially eligible copyrights signed away in deals decades prior. For obvious reasons, the majors (and others), far from giving up the relevant IP, have pushed back against the associated notices and the underlying recapture theory.

Building on that point, the present class action dates back to 2019, when the noted plaintiffs sued in an effort to reclaim a variety of masters that ultimately found their way into Sony Music’s portfolio. Johansen, for instance, traced his recapture attempt to a 1977 agreement involving CBS Records.

Moving beyond these multifaceted background details and returning to the November of 2020 amended complaint, the plaintiffs in more words maintained that Sony Music had ignored their recapture notices until responding with a formal denial just days before the termination dates.

“In fact, Sony’s tactic of responding to the recording artists’ section 203 notices shortly prior to the effective dates of termination is part of its systemic practice and scheme of refusing to honor termination notices,” the filing parties indicated.

Also worth highlighting is that Sony Music in late 2020 fired off an infringement countersuit against Southside Johnny and Collins. In the interest of brevity, this counteraction accused the two of directly infringing on protected audio and album artwork concerning the sought recaptures, besides inducing their attorney, one Evan Cohen, to do so. The latter alleged secondary infringement referred specifically to album artwork on Cohen’s “Copyright Termination Experts” website.

Regarding the dispute’s multiyear length, the pandemic and other factors drove several stays; throughout the years-long pause, “the parties reached agreement in principle on numerous aspects of a potential settlement,” according to court docs that preceded the letter confirming the settlement framework.

Then, an October of 2023 “nine-hour mediation” session with a Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services (JAMS) judge brought about “significant progress toward settlement,” per the resource. Evidently, this progress laid the groundwork for a wider settlement; the plaintiffs are expected to file an official motion for approval on or before May 31st.

Even so, the terms of the agreement in principle aren’t public, and bigger picture, the suit won’t provide much-needed precedent on the important subject. Other copyright recapture actions, including but not limited to that filed by country star Dwight Yoakam against Warner Music Group, likewise ended with quiet settlements.