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Prof. Cynthia Dahl explains the Taylor Swift copyright controversy

November 29, 2021

Cynthia Dahl
Cynthia Dahl

Dahl notes that most recording artists in a similar position as Swift regarding copyrights – “and maybe it’s time for that to change.”

Taylor Swift rereleased and expanded her 2012 album “Red” earlier this month, delighting her fan base and setting social media alight with takes on new lyrics and scuttlebutt on the additional songs.

Swift has been rerecording her first six albums in an effort to gain ownership of her music catalog after her former label sold the original masters to music tycoon Scooter Braun. Now, iHeartRadio, the nation’s largest chain of radio stations, has said their stations will only play titles from the new “Red (Taylor’s Version)” album.

Why would a powerful artist like Swift not own her own music? Penn Today reached out to Cynthia Dahl, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and the director of the Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic, to talk about music copyright and the Swift controversy.

Q: Why did this happen to Taylor Swift? Why doesn’t she hold rights to her own music?

Music copyright licensing is a crazy world. There are two copyrights in music. The first is the rights to the composition, where somebody is the author of the words on the page and the musical score. Then you have a whole separate set of rights that are around the recording. Taylor is both a composer and a singer, so she theoretically could have two sets of rights. But especially when you are a young performance artist, a lot of those recording rights end up going to the recording studio, and that’s what happened here. The first recording of the song is called a master, and the recording house in Nashville that Taylor is at war with, called Big Machine, owned the masters to the first six Taylor Swift albums. They struck this deal when Taylor Swift was a new artist and a teenager. Taylor still owns the rights to the songs that she authored, but she does not own the rights to the sound recordings of the songs.

It’s important to note that it’s not unusual for artists to be in this position. Pretty much every recording artist is in this position. Maybe it’s a relic of the old role that recording companies used to play before there was digital distribution, and maybe it’s time for that to change.

So fast forward about 10 years. Over time, Taylor tried to get her rights to the masters back from Big Machine, but she never finished negotiating that deal. Now Big Machine sold all of those rights to Scooter Braun, who is sort of Taylor’s sworn enemy.

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