Here’s Why Dwight Yoakam Is Suing His Old Record Label

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Samantha Hissong
·4 min read
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Fans who try to stream Dwight Yoakam’s “Honky Tonk Man” and “Miner’s Prayer” on Apple Music found the songs removed from the service, with Warner Music Group (WMG) allegedly taking down the music to, according to a legal complaint filed on Monday, “spite” the country star.

Section 203 of the Copyright Act — which went into effect in the 1970s — rules that artists may be able to terminate a label’s rights to their music 35 years following the work’s initial release. Yoakam’s first album released through a Warner Music Group label, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc, turns 35 this March and the singer-songwriter has been preparing for that day for approximately two years.

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Yoakam first notified WMG of his intentions to regain his rights back in February 2019, when he sent the company initial termination notices. In December 2020, he then submitted those notices to be recorded with the United States Copyright Office. Monday’s legal complaint explains that Yoakam’s managers and legal team members have had numerous phone calls with label representatives over the last two years — and instead of recognizing these termination notices, the label tried to negotiate deal terms for an ongoing relationship with Yoakam. On January 20th of this year, Yoakam sent a letter requesting, once again, that the label acknowledge the notices. According to the legal complaint, the label ignored the requests and tried to schedule another call to discuss alternative options.

On January 29th, Yoakam sent a final letter and threatened legal action by including a draft of the unofficial complaint. “Despite this, and to spite Mr. Yoakam, Defendants’ response was that certain of the works involved herein would be ‘taken down,'” the complaint reads. Six of the LP’s 10 songs, including “Miner’s Prayer,” were released prior to Yoakam’s initial deal with WMG. Shortly before it was time to drop Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., newer song “Honky Tonk Man” was released alongside a rerelease of older song “Miner’s Prayer” as a promotional single package on January 31st, 1986. So, it appears the label is agreeing to stop profiting from certain works to avoid any potential copyright infringement, but not yet agreeing to transfer the rights back over to Yoakam.

As for the other songs, the label has supposedly not come to a decision, despite having two years to consider its options. Moreover, Yoakam’s team argues that there is no decision to make, claiming that the label doesn’t have a choice. The Copyright Act covers any work “other than a work made for hire,” which applies to work made by an employee or work commissioned for a project like a film or compilation — and Yoakam’s team says neither case applies to the star.

Yoakam’s team argues that he is being “irreparably injured every day that the Defendants fail to recognize the validity of the Termination Notices.” By taking down some of his music, he cannot make any royalties off of those songs. The complaint also points out that the label’s actions are rendering Yoakam unable to sell his intellectual property as he sees fit. (Perhaps Yoakam wants to do a deal similar to the multimillion-dollar catalogue acquisitions that have recently benefited the likes of Neil Young and Stevie Nicks.)

By removing some music from streaming platforms, Yoakam’s team believes WMG is “implicitly recognizing” the termination notices while also “refusing Mr. Yoakam’s right to exploit these works himself.” The complaint continues: “Defendants, by refusing to return Mr. Yoakam’s works while simultaneously refusing to exploit those same works, are essentially holding Mr. Yoakam’s copyrights hostage and paralyzing Mr. Yoakam from financially benefitting from his statutory right to terminate the transfer of his copyrights.”

“The termination rights Congress gave to artists like Mr. Yoakam to gain control back over their intellectual property are essential rights that should not be interfered with or delayed,” Yoakam’s attorney, Richard S. Busch, tells Rolling Stone. “We did not want to have to file this lawsuit, but we were forced to so for all of the reasons set forth in detail in the Complaint.” Representatives from WMG did not immediately reply to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.

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