Bob Marley's Work Declared 'Work For Hire,' Family Can't Get Rights Back

from the this-could-be-big dept

Reuters is reporting on the fact that Bob Marley's family has lost a case where they attempted to get control over certain rights concerning his most famous songs. I haven't yet seen the actual ruling (anyone have it?), and the Reuters writeup is a bit confusing at points, but the point that caught my attention was that the judge ruled that Universal Music holds the rights to Marley's music, because Marley's work was done on a "work for hire" basis:
Cote concluded that Marley's recordings were "works made for hire" as defined under U.S. copyright law, entitling UMG to be designated the owner of those recordings, for both the initial 28-year copyright terms and for renewals.

"Each of the agreements provided that the sound recordings were the 'absolute property' of Island," Cote wrote. "Whether Marley would have recorded his music even if he had not entered the recording agreements with Island is beside the point."

She added that it was irrelevant that Marley might have maintained artistic control over the recording process. What mattered, she said, was that Island had a contractual "right" to accept or reject what he produced.
If you've been paying attention to the music legal world lately, you know that the whole question of whether or not sound recording deals were "works made for hire" is a multi-billion dollar question right now. In fact, it's such a big deal that the RIAA had a Congressional staffer named Mitch Glazier sneak four words into a big Congressional bill in the middle of the night when no one noticed making all sound recordings into works-made-for-hire -- thus depriving artists of the right to regain control over their copyrights via the copyright termination process (purely as a coincidence, we're sure, Glazier was officially hired at over $500k/year by the RIAA a few months later -- and he's kept that job ever since). Thankfully, people noticed this underhanded move, and a campaign from musicians forced Congress to fix Glazier's trick.

The legal issue here is a bit down in the weeds, but effectively, along with copyright extension, Congress does allow content creators to "reclaim" their copyright -- regardless of any legal contract saying otherwise -- at certain "termination" points. The big exception? If the work in question was done as a "work-for-hire," and certain types of works were deemed "work-for-hire" in an extremely arbitrary fashion (basically based on who had political clout in the negotiations). I actually think copyright terminations make very little sense, and it's a weak "response" to ever-lengthening copyright law. A much better solution would be to vastly shorten copyright's term, and then not have to deal with termination issues. However, the fact that the recording industry fought it so hard shows how their claims of being looking out for the best interests of musicians is pure hogwash.

However, with musicians gearing up to exercise termination rights, and record labels looking for any possible way to keep those rights for themselves -- including any possible way to twist the law to say existing works were, in fact, done as work-for-hire. Of course, the fact that they had Glazier slip changes into the law makes it pretty damn clear that they know, quite clearly, that such works were not really work-for-hire.

While I don't know if there was a specific contractual anomaly with Marley's contract, the fact that a judge found those works to be "works-for-hire," suggests that the same may be true of other recording artists' contracts, and you can bet that the RIAA lawyers are dancing a happy dance with such a ruling coming out. Some musicians, however (you know, the ones the RIAA pretends to represent), may have just had the rights they thought they were about to get back, ripped out from under them.

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  1. icon
    average_joe (profile), 13 Sep 2010 @ 5:27pm

    Re:

    You beat me to it. Love your blog, by the way. :)

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