How Taylor Swift Wrested Back Ownership of Her Masters


Taylor Swift is arguably one of the biggest popstars of our time, and there is no denying the immense impact she has had on the musical world. Her feud with her former recording label and a celebrity talent agent has been fascinating from a legal and intellectual property (IP) perspective for how Ms. Swift has managed to bring into limelight the issue of master rights in the music industry. This is a look at how Ms. Swift ingeniously managed to wrest back control of her work through the rerecording of her albums.

Background to the issue

In 2006, a then 15-year-old Taylor signed a contract with the Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) that spanned all the way till 2018 and gave them the rights over all the master recordings of her albums in that period in exchange for promoting her music.Master recordings are at the heart of this controversy because they are the original recordings of the music that can later be licensed out by labels for various use cases and thus form the primary revenue stream of music labels.

Following her rise to stardom, Taylor made several attempts to negotiate a deal with BMLG for her masters, which were unsuccessful. However, things got even more complicated when BMLG in 2019 sold the rights to the entire catalogue of her work till 2018 to Scooter Braun, a highly successful talent agent and a man with whom Ms. Swift had a history of bad blood. Mr. Braun, according to Taylor, started imposing restrictions on the use of her music catalogue at her concerts and proposed unreasonable terms when she tried to negotiate a deal for her master recordings. At this juncture, Ms. Swift decided to go ahead with the radical step of rerecording her first six albums. The announcement was followed by Mr. Braun selling her master recordings to Shamrock Holdings for 300 million.Restriction on rerecording

Most contracts between a musician and a label as standard have a clause that prohibits rerecording of the music for a set period after the contract has ended. In Taylor’s case, her contract with BMLG stipulated that she could not rerecord her albums until two years after the end of the contract or five years after the commercial release of the record. As her contract with BMLG expired in 2018, she was free to start rerecording five of her six albums in 2020, with the last one being eligible to be rerecorded in 2022.

Copyright Concerns

A song is a combination of different copyright components. There is the copyright of the musical components(lyrics, melody, composition) and the copyright of the original sound recording component of the song, which we refer to as “masters.” What worked to Ms. Swift’s advantage was that she was the lyricist and composer of her works and thus already had copyright over the musical works aspect of the copyright, which is not always the case.The question of infringement does not arise because the US Copyright Act under section 114(b) allows her to execute a re-creation of a previous sound recording as long as she does so with a new recording. Taylor also negotiated a deal with Universal Music Group (UMG) when she signed under their record label, whereby she would own all master recordings she would record under them.

Rerecording has thus allowed her to create new master recordings which are completely under her control. What Ms. Swift is doing is merging the musical work component of the copyright, which she already owns, with the newly recorded original recordings component of it, thereby ensuring complete control over her musical catalogue. This allows her to license and publish her work and earn a much greater percentage of the revenue as she has effectively cut out the middle man, which is Shamrock Holdings in this scenario.

A clash between two versions

What is important to note is that even though Taylor has now made new masters, the old masters of her work will continue to exist under the ownership of Shamrock Holding. This means that there are now two versions of Taylor’s music out there that can be accessed. If you were to go to your favorite streaming platform and search any of the songs from the rerecorded albums, you would be greeted with two options. The differentiating factor is that the newer version has added “Taylor’s Version” in brackets after the name of the song or album to help listeners differentiate.

Rerecording has meant that any party who wants to license her past work now has two options on whom to license from and is in a much better bargaining position with regard to licensing fees.While it may feel like Taylor has devalued her past work by rerecording, her extremely loyal fanbase has ensured that the newer versions rack up streaming numbers and chart high on the Billboard charts. Some of the biggest radio stations in the US have already stated that they will only be playing the newly recorded versions of her songs moving forward.

What should be a cause for concern for Taylor is whether your average listener will care which version of the song they listen to when playing it on a streaming service. There is also the issue that while Taylor has tried to make the newer versions as close to the original as possible, her voice has undergone a considerable change from her teenage years to the present, which keen listeners of her can discern.

Impact on the music industry

Taylor Swift is far from the first artist to have faced this issue, nor will she be the last. While the rerecording tactic has worked out for her, it need not be the case for upcoming or even established artists who may be facing the same issues. Rerecording is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that many artists just cannot afford to undertake. Taylor had copyright over the musical works component of her work and the bargaining power to negotiate ownership of her upcoming master recordings in her new record label deal which worked in her favor. Many major music labels, including her current one, have already started renegotiating contracts with artists to avoid this very scenario from happening to them by extending rerecording restriction duration.

While it will be interesting to see the stance taken by artists and recording labels moving forward, Taylor Swift,through her actions, has undoubtedly managed to bring attention to the conversations regarding artists and their ownership over their works.

Author: Aswin Pradeep, student at National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Kochi, in case of any queries please contact/write back to us via email or at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorney.

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