Recording Contract Gives Singer Royalty Rights for Synchronization

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singerThis case involves a singer who had many hit songs during the 1960’s. The singer was married to the producer of many of her hit songs. When the singer and producer met before they got married, the singer signed a five-year “personal services” recording contract with the producer. The singer agreed to perform exclusively for the producer’s record company and also agreed that the producer would acquire an ownership right to the voice recordings that the singer made. The recording contract set forth a royalty schedule to compensate the singer for her work. The singer went on to sell over 1 million records and top the music industry charts. After the two divorced in the early 1970’s, the producer began to capitalize on the continuing popularity of the singer’s music. The producer began licensing master recordings of the singer to be used in movies and TV productions, through a process called “synchronization.” The producer’s record company also began selling compilation albums containing performances by the singer. The producer’s record company earned millions of dollars from licensing and sales but no royalties were paid to the singer. Experts in intellectual property (IP) and audio engineering were sought to opine on the issue.

Question(s) For Expert Witness

  • Is a singer allowed to earn royalties from the synchronization and domestic licensing of their vocal performances for use in movies and TV shows?

Expert Witness Response

Synchronization in the recording industry refers to the use of new recording technologies and licensing of master recordings for use in movie and TV productions. Since synchronization did not exist in the 1960’s, the record contract in question would not have had a synchronization clause. When an older recording contract is silent as to the issue of synchronization, most courts find that the original record contract does not allow a producer to specifically transfer the right to issue synchronization and third-party domestic distribution licenses. In fact, in order to compensate a singer for the “unjust enrichment” that a producer can gain from synchronization deals in a case like this, most courts allow the singer to collect the music industry’s standard 50% royalty rate for income derived from synchronization and third-party licensing. When singers from the 1960’s signed record contracts, most of them did so without the guidance of an attorney. Because of this, it is usually held that the original record contract does not give a producer the right to exploit the singer’s recordings in new markets or mediums later on, since the record contract is silent on those issues. This means that the original record contract gives the producer’s record company complete ownership rights, subject to payment of applicable royalties due to the singer for synchronization of the music later on.

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