Copyright Law (Taylor’s Version)

By: Melissa Torres

Are you ready for it? Taylor Swift is reportedly set to kick off 2023 with the release of a new album, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version). Despite just releasing the fastest-selling album of 2022, Midnights, fans have been speculating about which one of her early albums she’ll rerecord next for quite awhile. Reports state, “Taylor has quietly been in the studio working on remaking both Speak Now and 1989. All details are still being ironed out but Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) should be out within the next couple of months, before she kicks off her Eras world tour.” 

But why is Taylor Swift rerecording old albums?  

While it may seem obvious to the general public that the writer, composer, and performer of a song would then own the recording of the song, the music industry functions on a different set of rules formed by contracts and copyrights. When a new artist signs with a record label, they form a contract which specifies the intellectual property rights of the works created. 

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. Common types of work include photographs, illustrations, books, and music. These works are fixed when they are captured in a “sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.” U.S. copyright law provides copyright owners with a list of exclusive rights and also provides owners of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations. 

Typically, in the music industry, copyrights are divided between the musical composition of a song and its sound recording. The musical composition refers to the lyrics of a song, the music itself, or both. The sound recording, also known as the master, is the recorded performance of the song. As a result, more often than not, an artist’s record label owns the master of a song.  

In Swift’s case, she signed with record label Big Machine Records in 2005 and formed a contract in which one of the stipulations was that Big Machine would own the rights to the sound records in perpetuity. After the deal ended in 2018, Swift moved on and signed to a different label. Her recordings made over the 13 years stayed with Big Machine, and the label sold the rights to them for $300 million to Scooter Bruan in 2019. Swift alleges she was never given the opportunity to purchase these rights. Despite writing and performing over 82 songs, she has no rights to those records and receives no payment anytime they are played. Therefore, the singer embarked on a mission to rerecord her first six records in order to own both the musical composition and master of the new recordings. 

Because Swift has written every single song released in those six albums and therefore owns the musical composition copyright, she retains the “sync rights” of her music. A synchronization license is needed for a song to be reproduced onto a television program, film, video, commercial, radio, or even a phone message. Permission from the owner of the master use license, typically the record company, also needs to be obtained if a specific recorded version of a composition is used for such a purpose. As a result, everytime these songs are used for commercial purposes, the owner of the masters earns a profit. 

By rerecording versions of her old hits, Swift will now hold the master and composition rights of these songs. To be clear, the original masters of these songs still exist, but by encouraging fans to stream the newer recorded version, Swift is able to reclaim any income that may have gone toward songs previously owned by her former label. 

What can we learn from Swift?

Swift’s case provides several important lessons to creators about the importance of intellectual property rights. Situations such as these, while not usually on the same scale, are relatively common in the entertainment industry. Prince, Kesha, and The Beatles are just some of the many artists who have fought for ownership rights of their music.  Artists need to be careful when entering contracts in order to protect their intellectual property rights. Intellectual property is valuable, and it is crucial artists recognize the significance of protecting their rights. Without intellectual property protection, artists would not be fully compensated for their creations. As a result, artists’ desire to produce new work would decline and cultural innovation would suffer. Moreover, creators should never rush to sign a contract before consulting a legal professional and fully understanding the future implications of each clause, as they can have enormous ramifications. The document that Swift signed in 2005 is still affecting not only her life, but the music industry today. Despite the legal hurdles Swift has dealt with, she is ultimately able to survive and profit off recreating her old music. Swift’s strong fan base has rallied behind her by promoting her rerecorded music and has helped her continue a career as one of the most successful female artists of the decade. 

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