Music fans of a certain age with a steel-trap memory for mid-80s pop will remember John Waite’s intelligent tear-jearker “Missing You.” The British singer and former The Babys frontman is back in the news, and he’s clearly not missing his old record company.
Waite and four other prominent musicians have launched class actions against Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group in Manhattan federal court to try reclaim rights to the catalogues they signed over many years ago.
The lawsuits, filed on Tuesday, argue U.S. copyright law enables songwriters who bargained away their songs on unfavorable terms are owed a “second chance” to claw back their rights by filing termination notices when the term of copyright lapses, at 35 years.
Despite reportedly filing hundreds of termination notices, the artists claim Sony and UMG have “routinely and systematically” ignored their requests, mainly because the songs were considered “works made for hire,” essentially a task completed by an employee as part of their job.
The plaintiffs in the Sony case are David Johansen, the singer and songwriter best known as frontman of the iconic punk act New York Dolls (for a bonus point: Johansen also starred as the “ghost of Christmas past” in Scrooged); John Lyon, who performs as Southside Johnny; and Paul Collins, who recorded as the Paul Collins Beat.
Plaintiffs suing UMG are Waite and Joe Ely, a guitarist who has performed with the likes of The Clash and, Bruce Springsteen.
As a result of UMG’s policy, UMG “has refused to acknowledge that any recording artist has the right to take over control of the sound recordings, or enter into an agreement with a different label for the exploitation of recordings, after the effective date of termination,” the complaint states. “In many instances, UMG has continued to exploit the recordings after the effective date, thereby engaging in willful copyright infringement of the United States copyright in those recordings.”
The suits seek damages for copyright infringement and declaratory relief.
This isn’t the first time a high-profile musician has gone to court with a corporation in the quest for freedom, the right to exploit their old songs. Musicians vs corporations is a familiar tale, with a cast of players that has involved Prince, Duran Duran, George Michael, Simply Red and many others over time, with varying results. These new lawsuits, however, are considered the first attempts at an action that represents a cluster recording artists to change the game.
U.S. attorney Evan S. Cohen, who represents the plaintiffs, comments: “Our copyright law provides recording artists and songwriters with a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime chance to terminate old deals and regain their creative works after 35 years.
“This ‘second chance’ has always been a part of our copyright law. Sony and UMG have refused to acknowledge the validity of any of the Notices, and have completely disregarded the artists’ ownership rights by continuing to exploit those recordings and infringing upon our clients’ copyrights.
“This behavior must stop. The legal issues in these class action suits have never been decided by a court, and are of paramount importance to the music industry.”
Sony and UMG have yet to respond to the lawsuits. For more, check out The Hollywood Reporter’s analysis.