Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Warner Music is the latest major label to be sued over the disputed termination right under US copyright law. In this case, the label has refused to recognise the termination notices by Country artist Dwight Yoakam. Which resulted in the removal of the disputed tracks from the streaming services, and left the Country star in a legal state of limbo.
Yoakam explains that he filed termination notices with Warner and its Rhino division in 2019. Under US copyright law, artist who assign their copyrights to another party are allowed to terminate that assignment after 35 years. When Yoakam tried to use this right, Warner's Rhino devision failed to acknowledge the validity of the termination notice, and instead, proposed new deal terms. In the continued back and forth between the major and the musician, defendants kept failing to acknowledge Mr Yoakam’s termination rights. The situation has left Yoakam in a perpetual state of limbo that prevents him from partnering with another label or distributor for those tracks.
During this time, Yoakam also fund out that Warner had removed his earliest tracks from the streaming services. This was because the major didn’t want to be sued for distributing recordings it doesn’t actually own, Yoakam’s lawsuit claims.
“Every hour that Mr Yoakam’s works are absent from the marketplace, through Mr Yoakam’s inability to exploit the works due to defendants’ false ownership claim and defendants’ refusal to exploit Mr Yoakam’s works, Mr Yoakam is financially damaged. Mr Yoakam is unable to earn royalties on these works, his fans are unable to listen to these works, and his streaming count, a quantifier that directly impacts the known value of a song, is detrimentally impacted”
In the lawsuit the major label argues that Yoakam's termination right does not apply. The argument is based on the idea that a record contract is a so called ‘work-for-hire’ agreement. That would make the label the default owner of any recording copyrights. A work-for-hire arrangement would basically make Yoakam an employee of the label.
Yoakam says that Warner “uses ‘work-for-hire’ language only to create an artificial work-for-hire relationship, despite not meeting any statutory requirement of such status”. In his lawsuit he continues that;
"Warner itself acknowledges that Mr Yoakam was not an employee, and as such any refusal of Mr Yoakam’s termination notices on the basis of a ‘work-for-hire’ relationship would be in direct indifference to the definition of ‘work-made-for-hire’ under [US law] and [an] outright rejection of the rights granted to authors”.
Yoakam wants the courts to confirm that his contracts with Warner were not work-for-hire agreements, and therefore his termination notices are valid, and that the US rights to his 35 year old tracks have therefore reverted to him.
The termination right - introduced into law in the 1970s - only really came into effect a decade ago. The whole work-for-hire debate – is next to this case – also tested in the US courts through two other cases involving Universal Music and Sony Music. So the outcome of those cases might be deciding factor in the case of Yoakam.