Kanye vs. Universal – Is Mr West’s Case Viable?

From his famous VMAs scandal to his chaotic presidential rally, rapper Kanye West is synonymous with controversy. So, when he started posting to Twitter about his contractual relationship with Universal Music Group (the parent company to his label G.O.O.D. Music and Def Jam Recordings), his followers were likely not the least bit surprised.

Among other things, West made public his desire to reclaim ownership of his master recordings, stating that his efforts to do so were being thwarted by several contracts he signed earlier in his career.  He then proceeded to publish a series of screenshots that he claims show his contracts with Universal Music Group page by page, writing:

I need every lawyer in the world to look at these.”

Declaring himself ‘the new Moses’, the rapper now refuses to release new music until he is freed from his Universal and Sony contracts.  He further tweeted out a screenshot of a text exchange with an unnamed adviser in which they discussed his legal options for getting out of his label and publishing deals. Naturally, such contracts don’t typically allow for artists to withdraw from the deals on a whim.

This was acknowledged in West’s flurry of Tweets:

“When you sign a music deal you sign away your rights. Without the masters you can’t do anything with your own music. Someone else controls where it’s played and when it’s played”, he tweeted at one point. “Artist[s] deserve to own our masters.”

Ownership of master recordings in the music industry

Traditionally, under a contract between a record label and an artist, the record label retains the rights in master recordings until the expiry of copyright of these recordings. That said, West isn’t the first to question ownership of master recordings in the music business. While record labels taking ownership of any recordings released has historically been standard practice in the music industry, this side of the business has been in flux in recent years in reflection of the changing, digital landscape.

Today, artists have other options when they seek to monetise their recordings – they can work with distributors and artists services which enables them to retain rights ownership to their recordings. Similarly, developments in this area of law have seen traditional labels offer deals where rights revert to artists or where the recording label plays the role of a service provider rather than a rights owner.

Nevertheless, many artists still rely on record deals that transfer ownership of their music to the label itself. The more services the artist requires and the more money they demand from the label, the more risk the label takes on – this in mind, it makes sense for a label to offset this risk and make it worth their while through retention of rights and royalties.

What’s more, when a recording artist who has made millions from their record deal questions the very contracts that helped build their wealth and launch them to heights of superstardom, it’s a bitter pill for a label to swallow.

After all, at its core, this is a contractual agreement that West himself willingly entered into knowing the terms and conditions around ownership – thus far, the label has technically upheld its end of the deal.

Is Kanye West’s case against Universal Music Group viable?

According to his adviser, there are a few routes which West could pursue to regain ownership of his masters.

“We can argue that Universal and Sony have not supported you fully,” the text reads. “And that as a result they have breached [the contracts]. This is the lawsuit/ termination nuclear option.

“If we went that route we would litigate and ask for your masters as part of a settlement. This is high risk but high reward strategy,” the message continues.

Of course, when your client follows up a Tweetstorm of private contract screenshots with a video of themselves urinating on their Grammy award, it doesn’t exactly help their case. Further, the screenshots of contracts provided by Mr West may not play in his favour – in fact, the contracts show that each new renegotiated deal actually put him in a better position.

For example, the amendments he signed in 2012 shifted the artist to P&D terms (press and distribution), whereby 100% of the profits would be his. A further amendment he signed shortened the window of time before he can reclaim ownership of his masters to 20 years for his 6th and 7th albums, and seven years for subsequent releases. In 2014, West signed another P&D deal whereby Universal Music Group would manufacture and distribute recordings for which the masters are owned by another party – presumably West. This grants him the rights to at least some of his master recordings.

So, while the claimant has a valid point to make and speaks for many recording artists when he stands against major labels taking ownership of master recordings, it’s fair to say that the deals struck for this artist in particular are more than favourable when compared with other artists’ contracts. Although West is successful in his attempt to shine a light at imbalances in the industry, this is largely due to the fact that the images provided reveal how much more “artist friendly” his contracts are than many of his colleagues’ in the industry.

Is Kanye West in breach of contract?

According to music copyright lawyer Lisa Alter, there’s no question as to the power imbalance in the music industry in general, and West is right to take a stand to bring the control back into the hands of the artist – however, his means of doing so are not exactly respectable.

“On the one hand, he’s pointing the finger at an industry in which the balance of power has been dramatically skewed in favour of the label as opposed to the artist—there’s no question about that,” she says. “But the manner in which he did it, and choosing his own contract as the example, is really where I think his message has gotten diluted.”

If one thing is for certain, it’s that West’s decision to share these contracts with his 30-million-strong follower base is a clear breach of the confidentiality clause written into his original contract. This in mind, UMG could realistically take legal action against West. In any case, the public sharing of private contracts relating to major record deals with major recording artists is certainly a never-before-seen occurrence, and it remains to be seen how the legal dispute will play out.