Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

The Song Goes On Forever; Can the Copyright End?

“Standin’ on the highway with my coffee cup
A-wonderin’ who was gonna pick me up
I had my hopes up high, I never thought that I
Would ever wonder why I ever said good-by
I had my hopes up high” I Had My Hopes Up High music and lyrics by Joe Ely

Joe Ely - Letter to Laredo - Amazon.com Music

The path of a professional musician is rocky and strewn with obstacles. Many struggle to find an audience, to earn a living, to be picked up by a major record label. But even for those who make it, the road is still precarious. One reason is in the devils bargain they had to make to get their first recording contract.

The term “quid pro quo” had gone viral until a real virus took hold of our collective attention. But “quid pro quo” applies to more than just phone calls between heads of state. For most emerging singer/songwriters, the quid pro quo for getting a record deal was this: the record company demanded that the artist assign her copyrights to the label. And that demand came in the form of an offer the artists couldn’t refuse–either assign the copyrights or no deal–a classic case of one party to a deal holding all the cards and having all the leverage.

Congress, back in the day when bipartisanship and legislative compromise weren’t dirty words, recognized the artists’s dilemma and provided a fix. The fix is by no means quick. But is is real and potentially lucrative–the 1976 revision of the Copyright Act, Congress included a “termination right” so that artists like Joe Ely pictured above, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and others who had signed-away their copyrights at the start of their recording careers can take back their rights, lock, stock and barrel, after 35 years.

But, as Ringo sang, “it don’t come easy.” Artists must follow strict procedures about the timing and content of their termination notices. And as might be expected, the record companies, having given an artist a “big advance,” (like The Boss gets at the end of Rosalita), aren’t exactly keen to see the valuable copyrights revert to an artist whose career the company launched and helped sustain for decades. And so, some of the current corporate copyright holders have vowed not to give up without a fight and have refused to honor termination requests from Joe Ely and many others.

Mr. Ely, however, along with English musician John Waite, “won’t back down,” as Tom Petty sang. They are lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against UMG, a major music corporation. In the lawsuit, Ely and Waite argue that UMG has not good reason or legal basis for rejecting their termination notices.

UMG, for its part, argues that the musicians never had a termination right because their original recording contracts included language that called the musician’s songs “works for hire.” So technically, UMG argues, artists like Mr. Ely never owned the copyrights in the songs they wrote and recorded while under contract to the recording companies. They further argue that the musicians should have sued over the “work for hire” issue decades ago, within three years of signing their contracts, so that the statute of limitations applies and bars their current claims.

Earlier this week, a federal judge rejected UMG’s theory, writing that denying the artists’ their termination right based on things they did or didn’t do over thirty years ago “at a time during which the artist and recording company may still have disparate levels of bargaining power — would thwart Congress’s intent and eviscerate the right itself.”

So the case continues on to a trial to determine whether Ely and the rest properly exercised their right of termination and can regain control of their copyrights.

The case is: Waite et al. v. UMG Recordings Inc. et al., case number 1:19-cv-01091, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

One of Joe Ely’s Texas Troubadour compatriots, Robert Earl Keen, sings “The Road Goes On Forever and The Party Never Ends.” This case will determine whether a record company’s party–it’s hold on copyrights it insisted on owning decades ago when it had superior bargaining power, will go on forever, or at least until the copyright expires many years in the future. The recent ruling shooting down UMG’s first line of defense leaves Mr. Ely and the other Plaintiffs with “their hopes up high.”

Quote of the day: “What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?” Johannes Brahms

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Annals of Trademarks: Super 8 Superates?

“Don’t Want to Die in a Super Eight.” “Super 8” by Jason Isbell

Like me, you’ve probably driven by hundreds of Super 8 motels in your lifetime. Travelling up I-95 for hours on rides to Jersey and New York or on longer hauls southward to the Carolinas, Georgia, and down the endless Florida coast, the rectangular sign with big red 8, black “Super,” and bright yellow background is hard to ignore, even as it blends in with the melange of fast food oases and other budget-conscious lodges that dot the interchanges and byways of our endless ribbons of highway.

Full disclosure–I’ve never stayed at a Super 8 Motel. Never given the place much thought, really. Not because I’m some kind of snob when it comes to accommodations. Sure, I enjoy a swanky room at a Ritz Carlton or Monaco hotel. But I’m equally at home at a Motel 6, where Tom Bodett leaves the light on for us, or at a Holiday Inn, my parent’s motel of choice for our occasional family junkets. I’ve even stayed at a few La Quinta’s, which one of my musician friends, (who’s seen the inside of many a motel), insists means “next to Denny’s.” Somehow, however, my travelling stars and terrestrial GPS never aligned to guide me into the parking lot of a Super 8.

But last night, while drifting off to sleep with Jason Isbell’s evocative new song “Super 8” from his magnificent album “Southeastern” (buy it!), something about the name of this hotel hit me like an epiphany. I’d always assumed that Super 8 referred to the price of renting a modest room at one of the chain’s humble properties. And indeed, Wikipedia reports that the fare at the first Super 8, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, was $8.88 per night. With that price, and with its reputation for clean, no-frills convenience, it’s no surprise that Super 8 took off like a Chevy stock Super Eight zooming down the roads of Jersey, as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Lost In The Flood” from “Greetings From Asbury Park.” I had no idea, however, that Super 8, which now is owned by Wyndham Hotels, is the world’s largest motel chain. And while listening to Mr. Isbell lament that he “don’t want to die in a Super 8,” I suddenly realized why the name makes sense. Super 8, you see, is a play on the word “superate,” a verb that means “to outdo; to surpass; to exceed.” And with more than 2,000 properties and over 125,000 rooms in the US and Canada, there’s no denying that Super 8 Motels, (now known as Super 8 Worldwide) truly has done precisely as its name suggests.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I know bad things happen. Bad things happen. But you can still live. You can still live.” Line from the movie “Super 8,” spoken by character Joe Lamb, played by actor Joel Courteney.

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