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Estate for Bob Dylan collaborator sues for cut of $300 million Universal catalogue grab

By | Published on Thursday 21 January 2021

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has been sued by the estate of a former collaborator which argues that it is due a cut of the reported $300 million he received when he sold his songs catalogue to Universal Music Publishing late last year. The major publisher is also a defendant in the lawsuit, accused of inducing Dylan and his companies to breach an old agreement with said collaborator, Jacques Levy.

In its lawsuit, the estate explains how Levy came to collaborate with Dylan back in the 1970s, ultimately co-writing seven of the nine songs that appear on the 1976 album ‘Desire’. He also directed Dylan’s 1975 ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour, which featured many of those ‘Desire’ songs.

What was basically a so called work-for-hire agreement was put together as part of that collaboration, which meant that Dylan was hiring Levy as an employee and would therefore own the copyright outright in any works they created together.

However, that agreement nevertheless provided Levy with many of the rights he’d have as actual co-owner of those copyrights. That allowed him to claim a share of performing rights income directly from the collecting societies, gave him vetoes over adaptions of the songs, and a 35% revenue share.

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

As for the 35% revenue share commitment, the lawsuit says that that was a wide-ranging right covering “any and all income earned by the compositions and actually received by [the defendants] from mechanical rights, electrical transcriptions, reproducing rights, motion picture synchronisation and television rights, and all other rights therein”.

Therefore, claims the Levy estate, that 35% revenue share should also apply to the sale of the copyrights to Universal Music Publishing. Based on reports that that deal was worth $300 million and covered 600 songs – and a belief that the deal did not specifically allocate bespoke values to each work – the estate reckons that Dylan basically received $500,000 for each song in his catalogue. And it should therefore receive 35% of that $500,000 for each of the songs Levy co-wrote.

The lawsuit also alleges that Universal knew about the Levy agreement when negotiating its Dylan deal and “wrongfully, intentionally and without justification induced the Dylan defendants to breach the agreement with plaintiffs by advising and/or instructing the Dylan defendants not to render any revenue, income and/or payments to plaintiffs in connection with the catalogue sale”.

We now await a response from Dylan and his companies. It seems likely that this dispute will get settled, but if not, it could put the spotlight on how these big catalogue acquisition deals that have been numerous of late actually work.