knowledge | 20 April 2021 |

Copyright Issues (Taylor’s Version): Who Owns Intellectual Property in Music?

Last Friday, Taylor Swift topped the Irish albums chart with “Fearless (Taylor’s version)”, a rerecorded version of her 2008 album “Fearless”.  The release is the first of a six part project for Swift, who is planning to rerecord each of her first six studio albums following a dispute with her former record label about ownership of the master recordings in these albums.  In this briefing, we take a look at the copyright issues raised by music recordings and the position in Irish law.

Bad Blood

Swift’s ambitious rerecording project was prompted by a dispute with her former record label, with whom she recorded her first six albums.  The label held ownership of the master recordings of the albums.  Since Swift’s departure from the label, the ownership of the masters has changed hands, but notably not into Swift’s, who has publicly indicated her interest in owning these master recordings. 

Our Song

Intellectual property in music recordings sees a number of copyrights at play (figuratively and literally).  The Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000 is the main legislation governing copyright in Ireland.  There are generally three pieces of copyright protected by the Act that make up a music recording:

  • Song lyrics benefit from copyright protection as an original literary work under section 18;
  • Musical arrangements benefit from copyright protection as an original musical work under section 18; and
  • The recordings of the lyrics and music benefits from copyright protection as a sound recording under section 19.

A recording of a song represents a ‘bundle’ of copyrights, in which different entities or individuals may own the various constituent elements.  Copyright protection subsists from the time of creation of the work without a requirement for the work to be registered.

Teardrops on my Guitar

Of each of these rights, the owner of the recording (or the ‘master’) can generally exercise the most control over the music.  An owner of a recording controls the use that can be made of it through licensing, which creates a revenue stream based on third party use of the recording.  Given the control and potential profit associated with the recording right, record labels often negotiate terms with artists whereby they retain ownership of masters in exchange for the payment of the upfront costs of making the recording.  

In Swift’s case, her former label held the copyright to the masters of her first six albums, which gave the label the exclusive right, among other things, to transfer ownership of the masters to a third party and collect revenue from the use of the recordings.

Getaway Car

Depending on the terms of an artist’s agreement with a record label, an artist may retain the copyright to their lyrics and to the musical arrangement of their songs, where they are the author or musician who created them.  Ownership of these rights allows the owner to control and licence any further use of the song lyrics or musical arrangements.  For example, any cover version of a song using the original lyrics or musical arrangement requires licensing from the holder of the copyright in the lyrics and music.

In this respect, Swift, who is either the sole or joint songwriter of all of her recorded music, may have an advantage.  Ownership of copyright in lyrics and musical arrangements dispenses with the need to obtain permission from a third party to the use of the music or lyrics.  Subject to any other contractual commitments (such as a rerecording restriction), where Swift holds these rights it clears a path to record a new version of those lyrics and that music. 

End Game?

Against a backdrop of related intellectual property rights, it is clear that the master recordings represent a valuable asset and contractual agreements can play a significant role in defining how that asset can be used.  Taylor Swift’s situation demonstrates that the bundle of related of copyrights that exist in a piece of music can give rise to complex disputes, with the rerecording of her early catalogue representing a relatively novel solution.

Also contributed by Aoife Mac Ardle.

This document has been prepared by McCann FitzGerald LLP for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.

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