It’s an intriguing tale that has garnered a tremendous amount of public attention. A beloved young singer named Taylor Swift is in an epic battle to wrest control of her music back from the intriguingly named Big Machine, now owned by the famed manager, Scooter Braun. 

Emotions have run high as Swift and her fans mourn the loss of her music and berate Braun and company for their heartlessness. With Swift’s encouragement, some fans began doxxing Braun and others, while Braun says he has received threats from Taylor Swift fans. Big Machine has even put out a statement suggesting that Swift has gone too far with her public battle. 

Drama aside, though, this is a straight-up copyright issue. 

Braun quietly bought Big Machine and the rights to Swift’s first six albums last year. Swift was furious and has waged a very public battle with Braun over those rights. 

Who Owns the Copyright?

Swift did initially own the copyright to her works. Ownership of a copyright, of course, always goes to the author of the copyrighted work, in this case the music itself and the performance rights surrounding those works. 

That is until the author chooses to sell or assign those rights. This is precisely what Swift did, just like many up and coming artists in search of the career support that a big label can provide. 

Even when she was in a good position with Big Machine, Swift would not have been able to perform her works at a concert, or even at a birthday party without the permission of the true copyright owner, Big Machine. They owned the copyright, and she would be performing those copyrighted works. She’s admittedly beholden to the owner of the copyright for the duration of that agreement.

The fact that Swift is no longer happy with the deal she signed does not make that contract go away. 

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The Right to Hold (and to Sell) 

Copyrights aren’t just about the right to copy a work of art or a song. There are quite a few “exclusive” rights assigned to the general umbrella of copyright law. These include: 

  • The right to reproduce or the right to make copies of a protected work.
  • Distribution rights or the right to sell or otherwise distribute copies to the public. These could be books or recordings, for example.  
  • The right to create derivative works or adaptations, which includes the right to prepare new works based on the protected work.
  • The right to perform and display the work. These include the right to perform protected work, such as a play or a song, or to display a work of art. 

The copyright holder can choose to sell all or part of any of these rights to someone else, which is essentially what Swift did. Copyright law also allows the copyright holder to license these rights to someone else for a fee. 

Every time anyone performs or uses a Swift song from one of the six albums he owns, Braun and Big Machine presumably earn a licensing fee. 

Related: Yes, You Need a Registered Copyright

Rights and Revenue

There are two critical copyrights in the music industry. The first is songwriting copyright, which belongs to whoever wrote the music and lyrics. This right generally covers the revenue received from:

  • Performance royalties for live performances of the song 
  • Mechanical license royalties which are fees paid for every copy made of the song 
  • Synchronization fees for synching the song to a movie for example 

The second piece is the sound recording copyright, which includes: 

  • Digital and physical record sales revenue 
  • Master-use license fees if, for example, the song is used in a movie. 

We don’t know the exact details of Swift’s contract, but it is likely that in return for signing away her copyright, she received promotion and recording benefits from Big Machine. When Scooter Braun arrived and bought out Big Machine, and along with it, the rights to Swift’s music, the singer decided she didn’t like the contract anymore. Hindsight is 20/20, but unfortunately for Swift, that is not how copyright law works. According to news reports Swift hasn’t ever challenged the legitimacy of the contract she signed.  She just wanted to renegotiate the terms after the fact.

Swift’s Options

Swift does have some recourse. According to the singer, her original contract with Big Machine allows her to begin re-recording songs from her first five albums starting in November of next year. Essentially this means she can re-record her songs, presumably with some unique twist to them, and then release those new recordings to compete with the original recordings now owned by Braun. Of course, this could create a whole new set of problems, including some confusion among her fanbase. 

Understand What You’re Selling

The lesson here? Know what your rights are, and know exactly what you are signing away. Just because it doesn’t seem right that a popular recording artist like Taylor Swift does not own the right to her songs, it doesn’t negate a valid contract. 

Understand What You’re Buying

In another example, the seven major book publishers who recently launched a copyright infringement case against Amazon’s Audible service knew exactly what rights they signed away.  

HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan Publishers, all members of the American Association of Publishers (AAP) filed the suit in reaction to Audible Captions, a machine learning tool that adds computer-generated text to some of its audiobooks. The project, launched in partnership with U.S. high schools, would allow listeners to read the generated text alongside the narration. 

Text is Text

However, according to the publishers and authors whose works are affected, Audible is purportedly basing their new service on their prior license, which only relates to the ability to “perform” the audiobooks of these works. This type of license is separate from the licenses offered for printed books and eBooks and was limited in scope to this type of use. 

Since Audible only secured the license for voice recording and playback, the publishers are contesting their use under the existing license. On the other hand, because AI was generating the text on the fly, Audible seemed to suggest that it was more similar to audio than to print. 

After arguing that this was a contractual rather than a copyright dispute and attempting to have the case thrown out of court, Audible recently announced that it had settled the suit. 

In fact, Audible capitulated. According to the AAP, Audible will seek permission from any AAP Members in good standing with the AAP before adding Audible Captions to their works. 

Both the Taylor Swift and Audible cases are at heart, straightforward copyright disputes. However, both illustrate the critical importance of understanding all of the rights that fall under copyright law. This is crucial information for both sellers and buyers.