Taylor Swift Teaches Copyright Law

You can learn a lot from her!

by Intellectual Property Attorney Bill Honaker, The IP Guy

By Paolo V – Taylor Swift The Eras Tour: Speak Now Set Era, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136033434

Taylor Swift is red hot, and in the news with her new songs and tour. A couple of years ago she was in the news because her songs were sold without her consent. You may not even remember her very public fight with Scooter Braun and his purchase of her first six album masters. Even though that dispute is now old news, the lessons taught are still important.

Who Owns the Songs?

I found the conflict between Swift and Scooter Braun—the new owner of her early catalog—very interesting. Not because I’m necessarily a fan of either, but because of what was being said, by Swift’s fans in particular:

“She wrote the songs … they’re her songs … she can perform them whenever and wherever she wants!”

Not so fast! They were written by Swift, so they’re her songs. But the law determines who owns them, and what she can do with them. In this situation, ownership is controlled by copyright law and the agreement that Swift signed.

Background of the Conflict

Swift’s debut album was self-titled. She signed an agreement for her debut album, and several more, with the record label Big Machine. The details of the agreement are confidential, but apparently Big Machine owns the masters for Swift’s first six albums. Last June, Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings agreed to acquire Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group.

Swift doesn’t like Braun and stated, “Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter.” Swift claimed that Braun wouldn’t let her perform her old songs. Fans were outraged, celebrities took sides, and the media couldn’t get enough.

Why Creative People Should Care

What’s interesting for creatives, is the difference between being the author and being the owner. This applies to anyone who creates songs, videos, articles, photographs, paintings, drawings, computer programs or other content.

Copyright law protects the expression of an idea in tangible form. More succinctly, if you express an original idea that can be reproduced, then copyright law protects it. With respect to ownership, the law states that the creator (the author, photographer, videographer etc.) initially owns the copyright. Since Swift created the songs, copyright law says she owns them, unless they were a work for hire, or she agreed in writing to give them to someone else.

Work for Hire

There is an exception to the general rule that an author owns the copyright, that is when it is a work for hire. This occurs when an employee is hired to create a work within the scope of his or her job description. In that situation, the law says the employer owns the work. However, two criteria must be met to be a work for hire:

  1. it must be an employee, not an independent contractor, and
  2. the employee’s creation of the work must be within their scope of employment.

Swift was an independent contractor. She worked on her own and created her songs independent of any employer. So, she is the owner, unless she transfers her rights to another.

Assigning Away Your Rights

Despite being an independent contractor, Swift clearly entered into an agreement and gave her copyrighted songs to Big Machine. This is called an assignment of rights and it’s the way an artist can transfer their rights under copyright law.

Swift didn’t give her rights away for free. Her record label promoted her at great expense, paid her handsomely and took considerable risk. It can cost more than a million dollars to produce a single pop hit. When Swift started, she was not a star; she was a potential star. In the agreement that she and Big Machine signed, it stipulated what each party was going to do and what each party would get. It further likely detailed what Big Machine could do with what they now owned, that being the right to sell to another party, even if it was to Swift’s “worst nightmare.”

Understanding What You Sign

Big Machine was founded by Scott Borchetta, and I’m sure that Swift trusted Borchetta when she signed with him. But you have to remember that people change, circumstances evolve and, well, business is business. According to people familiar with the sale, $300 million was the price for Borchetta to create Swift’s worst nightmare—to have her songs owned by  Scooter Braun.

Bottom line, you must read and understand any agreement you sign. When it comes to your intellectual property, be very careful that you are not assigning your rights, unless that is what you intend to do.

We’ve all heard it, “We’ve been friends for years. I trust him. He would never hurt me.” Maybe it’s true, but what if you’re wrong? Your friend takes a different job, loses control of the business, or someone with 300 million great reasons decides to sell their business? Your work is now owned by someone you don’t know, or worse, is your worst nightmare. You must provide language in the agreement to protect yourself from the unknown. The point is the person you know and trust today might be a different person tomorrow.

Obviously, these agreements are negotiated. The terms are in part a result of the leverage that you have. As a newcomer, Swift had little leverage with Big Machine. As a superstar, the tables have turned, and she now has the leverage. Her new deal with Universal Music Group’s Republic Records is much better. She posted a letter on Instagram saying in part, “It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I’ll own all of my master recordings that I make from now on.”

The Takeaway

If you’re a creator of copyrighted works, you must understand copyright ownership rights, and the related provisions in your agreements. Just as important, you also must understand that if they aren’t there, they need to be. For example, a clause that would have helped Taylor Swift would have been “You cannot transfer my rights to a third party without my permission.”

What you don’t know can hurt you in the Intellectual Property world. Not knowing may have you looking at the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re actually staring at a train. Your IP is very valuable. Just ask Taylor Swift.


Bill Honaker, The IP Guy

About the Author:

Bill Honaker, “The IP Guy” is a former USPTO Examiner, a partner with Dickinson-Wright, and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Assets – How to Maximize the Hidden Value in Your Business. To download a sample chapter, click here.

To get answers to your questions click here to schedule a time to talk, email Bill@IPGuy.com, or give him a call at 248-318-7015.

Leave a comment