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Appeals court upholds decision in dispute over Bob Dylan’s mega-bucks song catalogue sale

By | Published on Wednesday 6 April 2022

Bob Dylan

An appeals court in New York has upheld a lower court ruling in the dispute between Bob Dylan and the estate of one of his former collaborators, which reckons it should get a cut of the money Dylan received from the mega-bucks deal he did with Universal Music around his songs catalogue. The judge in the lower court disagreed with that claim, however, and now the appeals court has concurred on that point.

The lawsuit was pursued by the estate of Jacques Levy, who collaborated with Dylan back in the 1970s, ultimately co-writing seven of the nine songs that appear on the 1976 album ‘Desire’. Levy’s estate went legal after Dylan did his big rights deal with Universal Music Publishing, in which he sold his songs catalogue to the major for a reported $300 million.

The estate claimed that it was a co-owner of the ‘Desire’ songs and should therefore get a cut of the Universal money in relation to those works. However, in the 1970s Levy had a work-for-hire agreement with Dylan, meaning that the latter owned the copyright in their co-written works entirely, albeit with a commitment to pay his co-writer a royalty.

But in its lawsuit the estate argued that although Levy’s agreement with Dylan was technically a work-for-hire arrangement – making Dylan the default owner of the copyright in the duo’s songs under US copyright rules – that arrangement didn’t actually work like an industry standard work-for-hire deal. Which, it then added, meant the estate actually had a co-ownership claim to the works, in addition to its royalty rights. Which in turn meant the estate should profit from the catalogue sale.

Dylan and Universal strongly disagreed, pointing out that – by acquiring the former’s songs catalogue – the latter had also taken on his royalty commitments to his former collaborators, meaning the Levy estate will continue to receive the royalties it is due from the songs he co-wrote under the 1970s agreement.

The judge hearing the original case agreed with Dylan and Universal, concluding that 1970s agreement was “clear and unambiguous”. As a result he dismissed the lawsuit. But the Levy estate appealed, insisting that the lower court judge had cited inappropriate cases and ignored critical information in his judgement.

But the appeals court is having none of that. It ruled yesterday: “The parties’ agreement is unambiguous, and does not entitle plaintiffs to proceeds from the sale of the copyrights of the compositions co-written with Dylan”.

“Nothing submitted by plaintiffs concerning music industry custom and practice supports a reading otherwise, or even suggests an ambiguity in the relevant contractual language”, the appeal judges added, meaning the lower court had been correct to dismiss the lawsuit.