Breaking down the legal terms in Taylor Swift's music ownership dispute
Taylor Swift is dealing with “The Man” yet again.
The “Lover” singer had planned to perform some classics from her discography at the American Music Awards on Nov. 24 in celebration of her Artist of the Decade honor. The setback: Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta and Ithaca Holdings’ Scooter Braun own those earlier Swift masters and, according to Swift, will not give her access to perform them on stage or allow Netflix to use those archives in an upcoming documentary.
This is in conjunction with an agreement made when she signed with Republic Records and Universal Music Group in 2018 that would allow Swift to re-record her original songs starting in November 2020. Swift says Borchetta told her team that he and Braun would make an exception if Swift does not “re-record copycat versions of [her] songs next year” and if she stops “talking about him and Scooter Braun.”
“I feel very strongly that sharing what is happening to me could change the awareness level for other artists and potentially help them avoid a similar fate,” Swift wrote on Thursday. “The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished.”
Masters? Publishing? Copyright? Oh my! If you are at all confused about what all this music law jargon means, you need to calm down, because we’ve broken it down, step by step:
Authorship vs. ownership
Since Taylor Swift wrote the melody and the lyrics for her music, she is the author of the composition and has reserved that right under a publishing deal. But she does not own the rights to usage of songs from her first six albums because the songs were recorded under her old label, Big Machine Records.
As U.S. copyright law stipulates, “Copyright protection gives the owner of copyright in a musical composition the exclusive right to make copies, prepare derivative works, sell or distribute copies, and perform or display the work publicly. The owner of copyright may also authorize others to exercise the exclusive rights.” This is why Braun and Borchetta were allegedly able to veto Swift’s rights to perform her old songs on the AMAs and in the upcoming Netflix doc.
Administrative vs. co-publishing deal
It is imperative to differentiate between a publishing deal and record deal. The decision of whether an artist owns their masters happens in negotiations with a record company, but Swift’s status as an “author” of her work falls under a deal with a publishing company.
Just like in a record deal, a publishing company will attempt to entice artists with their influence and rapport with collaborators like record companies, producers, and other songwriters who artists can work with in exchange for partial ownership. This is a co-publishing deal. While in an administrative deal, an artist will have more control over their work, as they are given complete publishing ownership. However, they may not get as many hands-on resources from the publishing company depending on the nature of the negotiation.
Whoever owns the master is the master
A master recording is the original recording of an artist’s original work. This recording sets precedence for all other “derivative works” of a song. Plain and simple: the entity that owns the master has lordship over the song’s life after the recording (like usage in visual media and live performances). In this case, Big Machine Records owns Swift’s masters, and Braun now owns Big Machine Records through his company, Ithaca Holdings, as outlined by Billboard.
We know what you’re thinking: why would an artist willingly sign over something they created in the first place? Well, for an artist just starting out (Swift was a teenager when she signed her Big Machine deal), the resources and clout that comes with a major record label can propel them to stardom. But this ownership can last for years and be used as a bargaining chip when record companies are bought out, sometimes by entities an artist may not like.
Swift’s new deal with Republic Records and Universal Music Group allows her to re-record her old songs exactly a year from now. Since Swift is now a megastar, she was able to negotiate ownership over all her work with her new labeling, starting with Lover.