Sony Music settles copyright dispute with rock musicians including New York Dolls’ David Johansen

Man Alive!/Creative Commons
David Johansen of the New York Dolls.

Sony Music Entertainment has reached a settlement with a group of rock musicians who sued the label to reclaim ownership of their copyrights, according to a court filing on Friday (February 23).

Legal representatives for Sony Music, led by Gabrielle Levin of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, informed Judge Edgardo Ramos of an “agreement in principle to settle all claims in this case, subject to documentation.”

While the specifics of the settlement were not disclosed, the resolution marks a significant development in a lawsuit initiated in 2019. 

In this legal dispute, New York Dolls singer David Johansen, alongside fellow rock musicians “Southside Johnny” John Lyon and power-pop artist Paul Collins, among others, alleged that Sony Music had rebuffed their attempts to reclaim control over their copyrighted works.

The musicians’ complaint, lodged in February 2019, centered on Sony’s purported refusal to honor termination notices served by the artists.

Section 203 of the US Copyright Act, commonly known as the ’35-year law,’ allows artists to terminate their assignment of copyrights to record companies after 35 years, or 40 years in the case of rights assigned to music publishers, for any contracts signed from 1978 on.

“Johansen, Lyon, and Collins, and hundreds of other recording artists, have served Notices of Termination upon Sony… but Sony has routinely and systematically refused to honor them,” the 2019 artists’ complaint alleged.

According to the artists, Sony’s consistent refusal to recognize their termination notices effectively barred them from pursuing alternative avenues for their music, be it through independent releases or agreements with other labels. This alleged obstruction, they contended, infringed upon their rights under the US  copyright law.

“As a result of Sony’s actions, Sony has effectively stymied any chance that the class plaintiffs have of entering into a new agreement with a third party, or even exploiting the recordings themselves, as is their right. As a result, these actions by Sony have effectively destroyed the very salability of the post termination rights in the recordings that the Copyright Act expressly guarantees,” the complaint stated.

Sony Music had already moved to dismiss the case, arguing in 2021 that the termination right did not cover the musicians’ works.

The resolution of Sony Music’s lawsuit highlights a broader conversation about artists’ rights and ownership within the music industry. A number of artists have challenged established labels and publishers for control over their copyrighted works.

In 2019, several artists, including John Waite, singer-songwriter Syd Straw and members of bands like The Dickies and The Dream Syndicate, filed similar actions against Universal Music Group. In early 2023, a New York judge rejected a request to certify that lawsuit as a class-action, which would have allowed other musicians to join it. That case was reportedly settled last December.

In March 2023, Warner Music Group and Scottish rock band The Jesus And Mary Chain ended a copyright lawsuit filed in California over the band’s attempt to win back the rights to their recordings.

In 2017, Paul McCartney sued Sony/ATV Music Publishing over the right to claw back some Beatles publishing copyrights. McCartney settled with Sony later that year.

Music Business Worldwide

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