Look what you made me do: copyright law under the spotlight with recent Taylor Swift album re-recordings
In April 2021, the pop star Taylor Swift released a re-recorded version of her 2008 album: Fearless. The release of Fearless (Taylor's Version) is the first of an anticipated six part series, for the singer, as she plans to re-record all her albums from her time at her previous music label, Big Machine Records. The reasons behind Swift's decision, puts in the spotlight (if you'll pardon the pun) a number of interesting issues relating to copyright. In this article we examine the re-record in relation to UK copyright law.
The reasoning behind Swift's decision to re-record her albums relates to an ongoing quarrel over the ownership of the copyright to the master versions of her first six albums. As part of her initial record contract with Big Machine Records, Swift assigned the commercial rights of these albums to the label. Since 2019, Big Machine Records has changed ownership and resultantly so too have the masters. Swift's displeasure at the acquisitions and her wish for control over the masters has been publically well documented, as has her intention to re-record these albums.
The Copyright Law in the UK
Copyright is an intellectual property right that prevents other people from copying or distributing artistic works, without the permission of the owner. The main legislation relevant to copyright is the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). Under the CDPA, the main components of a song are protected:
- The lyrics: song lyrics would fall under the protection of "Literary Works", as long as they are written spoken or sung (Section 1(1)(a) and section 3(1));
- The accompanying music: protected under the CDPA as a "Musical Work" (Section 1(1)(a) and section 3(1));
- The sound recording of the actual song (section 5A(1) of the CDPA).
Unlike some other forms of intellectual property (for example, trade marks and patents) copyright protection applies automatically and does not need to be registered.
Thanks to the UK's membership of the Berne Convention, any UK copyrights will also be recognised and protected in a similar way in many countries across the globe. These rights can be enforced in the country where the copyright work is infringed subject to the local laws.
The general principle of copyright is that the first owner is the creator of the work (the author). In the context of song writing that would mean the individual(s) who wrote the song lyrics, composed the music and produced the sound recording. Therefore, multiple parties could have a copyright interest in one song.
Under traditional recording contracts, it is common for record companies to require artists to assign the copyright of the recordings (masters) to them. However, the labels may allow artists to retain the right to the lyrics and the music.
Big Machine, big money
Interestingly, it is the sound recordings that contain the predominant commercial value. For instance, masters owners may licence songs to TV, radio and streaming services to generate revenue. In other words, the songs we hear daily are copies of the original sound recording and every play will generate royalties to the master owner. As can be imagined, masters of the top music stars are highly sought-after assets and may be acquired for hundreds of millions of pounds.
To put this in the context of the present scenario, Big Machine originally owned the sound recordings of Swift's original six albums. They had the ability to generate substantial revenue through licencing or by assigning the rights to third parties. By Swift re-recording these records, she is potentially undercutting the value of the original masters: any revenue generated from the new versions would not be earned by Big Machine or their proprietors.
Swift's endeavours also signals a change in trend in the music industry with artists taking more control over their work. For example, artists that would have once licenced their sound recordings to record companies forever will now limit the duration of the licence for a distinct period of time.
Avoiding Bad Blood: learning points
Taylor Swift's re-recording provides a timely reminder that businesses should pay close attention to the value of assets such as copyright and identify the risks involved with taking them on.
Moreover, both individuals and businesses should be aware of the risks of assigning intellectual property rights and any implications that may arise from the loss of their control.