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Bob Dylan wins in legal battle with former collaborator’s estate over his $300 million catalogue sale

By | Published on Monday 2 August 2021

Bob Dylan

A judge in New York has sided with Bob Dylan in his legal dispute with the estate of a former collaborator which sought a cut of the $300 million the musician reportedly secured by selling his songs catalogue to Universal Music last year.

The court confirmed that Jacques Levy’s deal with Dylan back in the 1970s was a work-for-hire agreement which paid the songwriter royalties but which did not make him a co-owner of any copyrights, or grant him a cut of any profits from the sale of those copyrights.

Levy’s estate sued both Dylan and Universal Music Publishing back in January following last year’s headline-grabbing catalogue acquisition deal.

It argued that, while Levy did have what was officially a work-for-hire agreement with Dylan when he collaborated on songs that appeared on the 1976 album ‘Desire’, the terms of that deal went beyond industry standards. Which meant that the estate had a rightful claim to a cut of the monies Universal paid to acquire Dylan’s catalogue, the lawsuit reckoned.

Under US law, work-for-hire agreements allow an employer to become the default owner of any copyrights created by an employee under the deal, even if the employer/employee relationship is pretty informal. That means that Dylan owned the copyright outright in his collaborations with Levy, although the agreement nevertheless provided his collaborator with some of the controls and benefits that usually come with being the copyright owner.

In fact, the Levy estate argued, the agreement provided so many controls and benefits that it’s misleading to even call it a work-for-hire deal.

“The agreement’s terms make clear that the agreement is highly atypical of a work-for-hire agreement”, the Levy estate’s lawsuit added, “bestowing on plaintiffs considerable significant material rights and material benefits that are not customarily granted to employees-for-hire”. So much so, it added, “the label ‘work-for-hire’ is, in this instance, a misnomer”.

To that end, the Levy estate lawsuit went on, the 35% revenue share element of that 1970s agreement should also apply to the monies Dylan received from Universal last year.

The lawyers then did some basic maths, reckoning that the Universal deal paid Dylan $500,000 per song, and that the estate should receive 35% of the half a million dollars paid for each of the songs on which Levy was a co-writer.

However, when they formally responded in March, lawyers for Dylan and Universal argued that, while Levy’s work-for-hire agreement may have been unusually generous, that didn’t stop it from being a work-for-hire agreement. And that, therefore, made all of the Levy estate’s claims really easy to disprove. The estate’s lawsuit, Dylan’s attorneys then stated, “is an opportunistic attempt to rewrite a 45-year-old contract to obtain a windfall payment that the contract does not allow”.

They also stressed that the change in ownership of the Dylan copyrights didn’t change any of the royalty agreements he had entered into with collaborators in the past, including Levy. So the estate would continued to receive its 35% cut of any monies generated by the ‘Desire’ songs, just now from Universal.

New York judge Barry Ostrager last week concurred with Team Dylan. He ruled that the 1970s agreement between Dylan and Levy was “clear and unambiguous”, and that Levy was very much working on a work-for-hire employee basis during the ‘Desire’ collaborations. Indeed, the judge noted, the word ’employee’ was used to describe Levy more than 80 times in the contract.

The judge wrote: “The court determines that the plain meaning of the 1975 agreement is that the Dylan defendants owned all copyrights to the compositions, as well as the absolute right to sell the compositions and all associated rights, subject only to plaintiffs’ right to receive the compensation specified in the 1975 agreement, which does not include any portion of the proceeds from Dylan’s sale of his own rights to the Universal defendants”.

Needless to say, legal reps for Dylan welcomed the judgement. Attorney Orin Snyder told reporters on Friday: “We’re pleased with today’s decision. As we said when the case was filed, this lawsuit was a sad attempt to profit off the recent catalogue sale. We’re glad it’s now over”.