By Principal, Jennifer Tutty.
There’s something you may not know about me.
Despite my years priding myself on listening to, and playing underground and alternative music, I am a massive Taylor Swift fan.
From her lyrics, to her melodies, personal style, political views, business acumen and her global star power – I’m in awe. And luckily, having a 14-year-old daughter who is also a massive fan certainly helps me get away with it (yes, we scored tickets to The Eras show!).
The Release of 1989
Today’s another great day for TS fans around the world, as she re-releases another one of her albums (1989), which was originally recorded for and released on Big Machine Records on 27 October 2014 (9 years ago).
When Taylor Swift, music contracts and copyright law intersect, I’m really in my happy place. Let me get you across why Taylor’s able to re-release 1989 and what musicians and other creatives can learn from this whole story.
Taylor Swift was originally signed to Big Machine Records in 2005 and under her contract she had to record and deliver 6 full length studio albums. Under the Big Machine Records contract, the record label acquired exclusive ownership of the master recordings in each of the albums throughout the world, for the life of copyright.
Although the label acquired exclusive ownership of the master recordings in the albums, Big Machine Records did not acquire the copyright in the underlying musical compositions in the masters which is important to note. Taylor Swift retained the ownership of the copyright in the musical compositions which included the right to make reproductions of the compositions (i.e. master recordings).
As is common in recording agreements, the Big Machine Record contract stated that Taylor was restricted from re-recording any of the compositions embodied in the recordings forming the 6 studio albums for a period of time. It appears from news reports that Taylor’s re-recording restriction ended 2 years after the term of the contract expired (which was in 2018).
The Saga of the Sale of Taylor’s Masters
In 2019, Big Machine Records sold its catalogue including Taylor Swift’s albums to a private equity group called Ithaca Holdings which was owned by notorious music manager Scooter Braun. As was widely reported in the news, Taylor had beef with Braun, claiming he had repeatedly bullied her. Accordingly, Taylor was devastated about Braun’s acquisition of her masters.
Braun then sold Taylor’s albums to another company Shamrock Holdings in 2019 for a reported USD$300M despite Taylor trying to negotiate to purchase the masters instead.
How did Taylor retaliate?
Taylor made a decision to re-record each studio album once contractual restrictions on re-recording the relevant compositions expired.
To date, Taylor has released re-recorded albums, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) in April 2021, Red (Taylor’s Version) in November 2021, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) in July 2023 and as of today, the 27th October 2023, she will have released 1989 (Taylor’s Version).
Taylor owns the copyright in these masters, having only granted a licence to her new record label, Republic Records (yes, the girl learnt her lesson!).
With Taylor’s fans well across the reason she’s re-recorded and re-released these albums, the Taylor’s Version tracks have a much higher streaming rate on various music platforms. As an example, my 9 year old son always asks us in the car, “mum is this the right version’ when we put on a Taylor song – he’d hate to play the version which Taylor doesn’t own copyright in.
The good news is, is that Taylor’s making a heap of money from these new album masters and cutting significantly into the share of income for the current owners of the original albums (we’d love to see the figures on this). Sweet revenge, for sure!
What can musician and other creatives take away from Taylor’s experience?
- Be very careful to transfer ownership of your copyrights to a third party, even when the opportunity is a great one.
- Rather than transferring ownership, consider whether you can grant a copyright licence for a limited purpose.
- If someone wants to own your copyright throughout the world for the life of copyright (as opposed to a receiving a licence) – they need to pay a much higher fee.
- Big business may try to push you around and scare you off when you want to negotiate the ownership and use of your copyrights. Don’t be scared to push back and if they’re not up for negotiating, this might be a red flag.
- Always get advice from a specialist copyright lawyer before signing a record contract, publishing agreement or other long term personal services agreement where you will be producing a lot of new copyright material. The devil is in the fine print. As Taylor found out the hard way.
- It is possible for you to grant different components of your copyright rights to different businesses allowing you to better commercialise and profit from your copyright (remember Taylor owned her compositions, so she could re-record these in due course).
- If you need to transfer ownership of copyright to someone, consider whether those rights can revert back to you after a period of time (rather than stay with that person for the life of copyright). Then in the future, you can look to re-commercialise these assets or leave them to your estate.
Written by Principal, Jennifer Tutty.
Published 27 October 2023.
Image credit, Taylor Swift, used for the purpose of reporting the news.
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