Look What Copyright Law Made Her Do
Taylor Swift is notorious for hiding secret messages in her lyrics, music videos, and social media. Her fans waste no time in decoding even her most apparently innocuous posts. Last May, she shared that she was “Very Stoked” about a band called Jack Leopards and the Dolphin Club covering her song “Look What You Made Me Do.” There seemed nothing particularly odd about Swift’s tweet – except that the band didn’t exist.
Swift’s fans eagerly took up the roles of amateur sleuths to get to the bottom of the mystery. They quickly noted that Nils Sjöberg – an alias of Swift’s – was listed as a producer. Fans also discovered evidence that Swift’s own brother was the one performing the song as “Jack Leopards and the Dolphin Club.”
So why did Swift resurrect her infamous pseudonym, conjure up a fake band, and enlist her brother to perform a new version of the song?
To get around the tangle of copyright law.
There are two types of copyright registrations available for music: composition rights, which can cover lyrics and sheet music, and sound recording rights, which cover the actual recording of the song. As the US Copyright Office puts it, “the composition ‘Respect’ and a recording of Aretha Franklin singing ‘Respect’ are two distinct works” in the eyes of copyright law.
Whoever owns the sound recording rights controls the “master,” or the original recording from which every other copy is made. As Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, told the New York Times: “A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music… Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.” It’s hard to understate how critical these recordings are to the industry. A 2008 fire that wiped out an estimated 500,000 masters at Universal studios has been called “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”
When an artist signs with a music label, it’s standard practice for these rights to be split. The artist will retain the composition rights while the label takes control of the master. Selling their sound recording rights may be the only leverage an unknown artist has to encourage a label to take a risk on them, as was the case when Swift signed with Big Machine Music Label at only 15 years old. The label can then license the music and receive a portion of the royalties. The more lucrative an artist’s work becomes, the more valuable the copyright’s royalty stream is. This can create a power imbalance that even the most famous artists in the world find difficult to overcome. Prince once summed up his frustration about his unsuccessful fight to gain the rights from his label: “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
Swift learned this the hard way when music manager Scooter Braun acquired Big Machine Music Label in the summer of 2019. Swift had recently moved to a new label under an agreement that gave her the sound recording rights to any future work, but the masters for her previous six albums were still with Big Machine.
Swift had reason to dislike Braun before the deal, and didn’t mince words about what she thought of her nemesis owning the rights to her masters: “This is my worst case scenario.” She was desperate to regain the rights to her albums, but her hands were tied. The transfer of sound recording rights was completely legal, even a fairly common practice. “She has no legal recourse,” explained music lawyer Howard King.
Enter: Nils Sjöberg and Jack Leopards and the Dolphin Club.
The “Look What You Made Me Do” cover was the first concrete evidence that Swift was making good on her promise to re-record the albums whose masters were sold to Braun. Since she has full control over the albums’ composition copyrights and her Big Machine contract has officially expired, Swift is free to record new versions of her older songs. In doing so, she can register new sound recording copyrights firmly within her control. There’s nothing Swift can do about her old masters right now – but by releasing new versions of her songs to license for TV, movies, and more, she can mitigate the royalties others are earning at her expense.
Swift isn’t alone in her quest to own the rights to the master recordings of her songs. A handful of artists, including Metallica, Stevie Wonder, and Jay-Z, have fought to secure the sound recording rights to some or all of their albums. Far more, however, haven’t succeeded. Swift’s efforts have already sparked a dialogue that may ultimately change the music industry. Until then, her fans will enjoy searching for more coded messages in the re-recorded releases.