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‘Weird Al’ Yankovic joins digital royalty fight

By | Published on Monday 2 April 2012

'Weird Al' Yankovic

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic is the latest artist to enter the digital royalties dispute party in the US, in a wide ranging royalties lawsuit that accuses Sony Music of improper reporting of its costs, of failing to pass on any of the damages it won from file-sharing companies like Kazaa, and of paying him a record sale royalty on download sales when such revenues should be treated as licensing income, where he would receive a much higher share of the money.

The latter claim, of course, has become increasingly common of late, after FBT Productions successfully sued Universal for a higher cut of download revenue, successfully arguing that, if an artist contract doesn’t explicitly state what happens with digital income, it should be treated as licensing revenue rather than record sales money. The majors have so far treated download income as the latter where contracts are ambiguous on the matter, because that way they can pay their artists a much smaller share.

Universal insists that the ruling in the FBT case does not set a precedent that applies to all artist agreements, though various artists with pre-internet contracts do not agree and are suing the major for a higher pay out. Meanwhile EMI faces litigation on this issue from Kenny Rogers, and Warner Music from Sister Sledge and Tower Of Power.

Sony Music, for its part, has offered a settlement deal on the digital royalties issue as part of a much earlier lawsuit on the matter, launched by The Allman Brothers and Cheap Trick back in 2006. That deal, which would see artists receive a 3% increase in their share of download revenue, is yet to be approved by the US courts before being put to affected artists. That Yankovic has included the download royalties issue in his new lawsuit would suggest he’s not impressed with Sony’s proposals.

The other aspects of the comedy singer’s royalties lawsuit, actually filed by his company Ear Booker Enterprises, are also interesting. Quite how the majors share any damages won in P2P litigation with the artists whose music was actually illegally file-shared has been another contentious subject in artist and management circles for some time, as have the equity stakes the majors take in digital start-ups, which can turn into sizable pay-outs if the digital companies are bought or floated.

One of the earliest equity deals struck by the majors was with YouTube, when the record companies licensed the video-sharing site shortly before its acquisition by Google. According to Billboard, Yankovic reckons he should get a share of the profits Sony made from its YouTube stake, because when the company negotiated its deal with the then independent digital company, one of his videos – for the 2006 Chamillionaire parodying track ‘White & Nerdy’ – was one of the most popular bits of content on the video site. Says the lawsuit: “A portion of Sony’s equity share in YouTube is directly apportionable and allocable to ‘White & Nerdy’ as well as other content created by Yankovic”.

Sony, which last week filed papers requesting a recent digital royalties lawsuit launched by Toto be dismissed, is yet to comment on the Yankovic action.