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What Taylor Swift Can Teach You About Copyrights

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

In recent news, both celebrated recording artists, Arianna Grande, and Demi Lovato, ended their relationship with manager Scooter Braun. Braun, of SB Projects, is well known in the music industry and became involved in a battle with Taylor Swift over ownership of her first six records.

The controversy started when Taylor created songs for her albums under a contract with record label, Big Machine Records. As the artist, she retained the copyright for the music and lyrics, but Big Machine Records owned the actual recordings of her albums, called “masters." However, Scooter Braun acquired Big Machine Records (including rights to the original masters of her six albums). Taylor did not have the opportunity to buy back her masters from her record company.

In a legendary move, Taylor re-recorded album: 'Taylor Swift," "Fearless," "Speak Now," "Red," "1989," and "Reputation." These albums are now identified as “Taylor's version." She now not only owns rights to her lyrics and music but also to these new masters. So, let's look at how copyright laws protect intellectual property.

copyright is a registration to secure your intellectual property from being used by others.

When a songwriter composes lyrics and music, it is an expression of their ideas in a fixed tangible form. Ideas are not copyrightable, but they can be protected when they are in a material form. Merely thinking about a song is not something you can copyright, but when you write the lyrics or music, you can protect your intellectual property with a copyright. Copyright protection means no one else can use or profit from your work without your permission.

A song, like a book, photograph, painting, or movie, is a fixed work. You can register your work with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a copyright. You complete the application and receive a copyright. This copyright means you protect your work. You are able to use this work to create a derivative work (a new work based on your original work) or to license your work to others.

If you are an artist, consider registering for copyright protection. If you want to sue someone for copyright infringement, you must have proof of your registered copyright which is public record at the USPTO. Even if you don't have a hit song, you don't want others to profit from your intellectual property. And you may consider forming a limited liability company to own your copyrights and license your work to others.

And copyrights last a long time. Under the Copyright Act, if an author creates a work after January 1, 1978, the copyright protection lasts 70 years after the author's death.

Can Someone Use My Intellectual Property Without My Permission?

Yes, there is an exception under copyright law. Under the "fair use" provision of the Copyright Act, you do not have exclusive rights when your work is used for:

  • Parody
  • Criticism
  • Comment
  • News reporting
  • Teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use)
  • Scholarship
  • Research

A court will look at how the work is used, for example, for commercial or nonprofit educational use, the nature, and the amount of the copyrighted work used.

Taylor's version of her re-recordings allows her exclusive rights over her sound recordings. But copyright laws work both ways. In 2017, she was accused of copyright infringement for her song “Shake it Off." This copyright lawsuit brought by songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler claimed that Swift infringed on a song they wrote for the group 3LW titled “Playas Gon' Play." Their lyrics, “Playas, they gon' play, and haters, they gonna hate" contrast with Taylor's, “Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play, And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate." The case was to go to trial in January 2023, but the parties settled out of court in December 2022.

Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato have demonstrated that they are “never ever, ever getting back together" with Scooter Braun. By understanding how copyright laws work to protect their interests, they can take charge of their careers and destiny.

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