What everyone can learn from the $300 million deal that Taylor Swift claims ‘stripped me of my life’s work’

Published: July 6, 2019 10:03 a.m. ET

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Here’s what you need to know about owning and protecting your work

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Taylor Swift got vocal with fans about ownership of her music after Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber who Swift alleges bullied her, and recently bought the master recordings of six of her multi-platinum albums.

Taylor Swift is teaching the world a lesson about protecting their work.

The pop star got vocal with fans Sunday when she revealed that Scooter Braun — the manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande who Swift alleges bullied her — bought the master recordings of six of her multi-platinum albums.

Braun acquired the master recordings, once controlled by Nashville-based record company Big Machine, for more than $300 million, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Swift said that Scott Borchetta, the founder of Swift’s former label the Big Machine Label Group, would not sell her control of her masters and she severed ties with the label in November.

‘This is my worst case scenario.’
—Taylor Swift, writing on Tumblr

She signed another contract with Universal Music Group and Republic Records, its subsidiary, to ensure she’d own her master recordings.

But she still doesn’t fully own her old work. “This is my worst case scenario,” Swift said in a lengthy Tumblr VZ, -1.51% post describing her past with Braun.

Swift’s sad saga is a high-profile reminder to anyone who works in a creative field to protect their work, whether they want to maintain total control, partner with others or sign a contract to do artistic work for someone else.

When you’re a musician and you write your own songs, like Swift, you have two copyrights, the written music and the recording of that music. In Swift’s case, she owns the written music, but not the recordings.

“If she owns her own songwriting, she still will also — regardless of who owns the label — still earn money off those recordings,” Joleen Hughes, a media lawyer, told MarketWatch.

‘If she owns her own songwriting, she still will also — regardless of who owns the label — still earn money off those recordings.’

Still, Swift said the sale “has stripped me of my life’s work,” in her statement on Tumblr.

Borchetta disputed that, saying he gave Swift a chance to gain ownership over her recordings if she signed a new contract with Big Machine Label Group, but she chose to leave, Borchetta wrote in a blog post.

Borchetta also denies Scooter Braun bullied her. “Scooter was never anything but positive about Taylor,” he said.

Swift, who signed with the independent Big Machine Label Group in 2005 when she was largely an unknown country music singer, said her trust was misplaced. “This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” she wrote.

Hughes says having a buy-back clause in a contract like Swift’s could have helped her maintain ownership over her music and may have helped her negotiate buying back her masters.

Other provisions, like a “non-assignment” clause in the contract could have helped by stating that in the event of a sale or a merger, the owner (in this case, record label Big Machine) is not allowed to assign the contract without the artist’s permission. (A non-assignment clause prevents another person from gaining control or specific rights over an existing contract).

“A lot of those specifics are subject to her contract, which if she signed at a really young age, before Taylor Swift was the Taylor Swift we know and love today, her leverage may not have been as strong as it is today,” says Hughes.

Here are some ways artists can protect ownership of their work, and prevent copyright infringement or having their work exploited:

Register your copyright

Once you create something — whether it’s a novel, a painting or a photograph — you automatically own the copyright. This means you have ownership over how the work gets published or distributed and whether or not someone else gets to use your work.

Once you create something — whether it’s a novel, or a painting or photograph — you automatically own the copyright.

You can legitimize the copyright by registering for one. That’s good idea should someone decide to copy your work or exploit it (that is, if you have taken a photograph and someone else uses it on their website to advertise for something else). This can be done online starting at around $35 per registration.

“It’s not legally required, but it does give you government protection of your copyright, and special benefits that put you in the best possible position to enforce your copyright against someone who infringes,” Robert Cumbow, an attorney for Seattle-based law firm Miller Nash Graham & Dunn, told MarketWatch.

“It gives you the right to bring a lawsuit if your work has been infringed. You can’t do that if you don’t have a registration,” he added.

If you’re a novelist, for example, Cumbow suggests registering an abstract of what the book is about, in case someone tries to steal your idea or drafts of your copy. That could also help if, for example, a company used the idea for a television series or movie.

If you register a copyright before the infringement occurs, you have the option to sue for actual damages (financial), or statutory damages, showing that your work was devalued. Awards can range from $750 to $30,000 per act of infringement, Cumbow says.

Sign a contract when working with a partner

If you’re creating something with a partner — whether it’s a book, a treatment for a movie or even a design for a website — get a contract in writing that details who owns the copyright. That way, you have the right to say how and where it’s distributed.

“Make sure the contract mentions copyright and, specifically, who will have ownership over it. The person who commissioned the copyright will have a lifetime license to use the work in XYZ ways, but the copyright still belongs to the artist,” says Cumbow.

Handling ownership when you’re working for an employer

If someone hires you to create something, they own the right to whatever it is you’re being paid to make or do. Cumbow, however, says it’s a good idea for the artist to say they want a license back to use the work they made for limited purposes.

What to do if someone tries to steal your work

If infringement occurs, Cumbow suggests reaching out to the person who is exploiting your work to ask them to take it down, or stop using it.

“Or you could say, ‘I normally charge a license fee of X and, if you’ll send me a check, I’m happy to have you keep it. Whatever you demand, it’s always a good idea to start with the artist getting in touch with the infringer,” says Cumbow.

If there’s pushback, the copyright holder should get a lawyer to write a firm and persuasive letter of infringement, emphasizing why and what they could be liable, Cumbow adds.

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