Judge denies artists’ request for class action in UMG copyright lawsuit

Photo: MBW

A federal judge in New York has rejected a request made by singer John Waite and other artists to certify their lawsuit against Universal Music Group as a class action, meaning hundreds of artists will not be able to sue the label in a single case.

Waite, known for his 1984 single Missing Yousued UMG in 2019 alongside other musicians who proposed class actions against UMG and Sony Music Entertainment, citing their refusal to allow recording artists to terminate grants of copyright interests 35 years after the initial release of their albums.

The artists argued that Section 203 of the Copyright Act, commonly known as the 35-year law, represents “a major legal issue in the music industry”.

They claimed that Sony and Universal have refused to allow them to take back ownership and control of their US copyrights after the 35th year of their album even after they served a notice of termination to the labels to end the grant of rights.

The notice of termination would have allowed them to regain control of their music.

In his complaint filed in 2019, Waite said he served a notice of termination to UMG in April 2015 for his Ignition album, which was released in 1982 via Chrysalis Records, a predecessor to UMG.

UMG had initially made an effort to cease the exploitation of Ignition in the US, but it repeatedly informed Waite that it did not agree with the notice of termination and had sought to negotiate a further grant from Waite.

Waite rejected the label’s proposal in August 2017 and started exploiting the album himself via digital outlets through a record label that he owns, according to the court document obtained by MBW.

UMG then issued a notice to Waite in May 2018, asserting that the artist’s exploitation of his own album was improper and demanded Waite to “cease and desist from any and all unauthorized exploitation of the sound recordings, including the ‘Ignition’ album.”

It led to Waite taking down his album from digital sites after a take-down notice from UMG in July 2018.

In a statement in 2019, Maryann R. Marzano, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Waite among other plaintiffs that took similar actions against record companies, said “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.”

Waite’s legal team filed a motion for class certification in April 2022, asking to certify classes that consist of over 200 musical groups and solo recording artists.

However, that request was rejected by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan on Friday (January 27), citing the unique questions raised by each individual artist’s 

Waite is just among a number of artists that sought to reclaim ownership of their albums. Judge Kaplan said recording agreements between artists and labels are common in the music industry.

“In theory, artists who wish to release and market their music may do so on their own, without the assistance of record labels. In reality, however, it is impractical for most artists to proceed independently of record labels, which offer the means and resources to market and promote artists’ works and are better positioned to accept the risk that the works might not succeed commercially,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan also noted that Congress enacted the Section 203 of the Copyright Act in 1976 to allow an author of a work to terminate a transfer of copyright 35 years from the date of transfer. However, the judge noted that “the termination right is not automatic.”

An author has to serve a written notice of termination and meet certain regulatory requirements. The notice also has to be recorded with the Copyright Office.

However, Judge Kaplan said the plaintiff’s cases “demand complicated individualized inquiries” and the artists have not demonstrated that the labels have acted on grounds generally applicable to the class.

“plaintiffs have offered no evidence that defendants have exploited all proposed class members’ sound recordings after the effective dates of termination.”

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan

In one case involving Kasim Sulton, a bass guitarist for Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, “plaintiffs have offered no evidence that defendants have exploited all proposed class members’ sound recordings after the effective dates of termination,” Judge Kaplan said.

Kaplan concluded that the individualized evidence and case-by-case evaluations needed to resolve artists’ claims make the case not suitable for a class action.

Elsewhere, UMG is facing a class action in New York, filed on January 4, over its Spotify equity ownership.

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