In the music industry, owning the intellectual property rights to your music is as valuable, if not more, as creating the work itself. With this in mind, we often see disputes over the creation and ownership of these rights. To have a valid copyright, an artist or author must create a work that is 1) original and 2) fixed in a tangible medium. In the music industry, this is expressed through songs. Songs consist of two types of copyrightable work, musical works, and sound recordings. Musical works consist of melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and any such combination. Sound recordings stem from the fixation of musical, spoken, or other words or sounds embedded into a material object such as a disc, tape, or phonorecord.

Two recent cases involving Post Malone and Universal Music Group challenge the current nexus that is the intersection of Copyright and Music Law. The case of Post Malone concerns the control and ownership of the top-charting song “Circles.” Here, Tyler Armes attempted to establish that he contributed a copyrightable idea and was in control of the final track with his “one, four, five” chord pattern. Post Malone insists that Armes was a mere “studio guest” and not a “creative mastermind” in producing the track.

This suit was originally filed in 2020, but the District Court Judge partially dismissed the suit, ruling in Post Malone’s favor and noting that Armes “fails to allege his co-authorship of the recording because he does not plead facts showing ‘the most important factor’: that he superintended control over its creation.” To have joint authorship of a copyrighted work, both creators must “materially contribute” to the work. This means creating elements of a work that, on their own, are enough to warrant a copyright. Armes’s “one, four, five” chord pattern appears to be his only claim to ownership rights of the song “Circles,” however, that chord is considered “extremely common” and a basic framework of music theory. It essentially is not creative enough to meet the low level required for a copyright.

The second case involving Universal Music Group is a class action involving a number of famous musicians including singer John Waite, bass player Kasim Sulton, singer Syd Straw, Leonard Graves Phillips and Stan Lee of punk band The Dickies, and Steve Wynn, Dennis Duck, and Dave Provost of the rock band The Dream Syndicate, along with 220 other artists. Here, the plaintiffs allege that “record labels have violated copyright law and deprived hundreds of artists of their ability to reclaim rights over their works.” This claim is not the first concerning Universal Music. The music industry’s growth has led to record labels and artists fighting for control of their creative intellectual property. The actual substance and enjoyment come from the creative work; however, the monetary value is derived from copyright ownership.

Copyrights are crucial to the music industry and serve as a means for artists, producers, and record labels to profit from their creative expressions. The monetary value of music is typically realized by the party who owns the master recording of the song. A master license “gives the license holder the right to use a recorded piece of music in a media project such a film, TV show, commercial, or another visual creation or audio project.” Owning a copyright is how artists preserve and protect their tracks from unauthorized redistribution. As a fundamental principle of intellectual property, to incentivize artists to create, there must be a means to defend their right to earn a profit. It is unrealistic to expect an artist to spend significant time making music, only to have that music stolen or sold for no financial benefit.

While copyright law provides a certain amount of protection for an artist from other artists, as we see above with Post Malone and Tyler Armes, it does not sufficiently protect artists from labels and business entities in the music industry. The unfortunate reality is that some record labels view artists merely as a way to make a profit instead of as creative beings. This leads to contractual and legal disputes over master licenses and copyrights ownership. As a basic principle, an author of a copyright is usually the performer or sound engineer. However, due to a lack of resources, young and new artists often give these ownership rights to record labels through a contract for exposure, access to resources, and initial monetary incentive, not realizing just how much they are giving up.

This is not to say that these types of arrangements are always negative. In some cases, these contracts and relationships are mutually beneficial, especially early on. However, over time, the artists’ success often outgrows the contracted amount of compensation. Artists attempt to restructure or sometimes sever their deals to avoid unjustly enriching the labels. The time is ripe for implementing new mechanisms to protect artists from overreaching record labels.