Bob Dylan, UMG Sued by Estate of ‘Desire’ Co-Writer Jacques Levy Over Publishing Sale

Chris Willman
·5 min read

Bob Dylan and Universal Music Group have been sued by the estate of Jacques Levy, who co-wrote seven of the nine songs on Dylan’s chart-topping 1976 album “Desire,” over the estate’s contention that it should have been compensated as part of Universal’s reported $300 million acquisition of the entire Dylan publishing catalog.

An attorney for Dylan, Orin Snyder, has responded, saying in a statement given to Variety, “This lawsuit is a sad attempt to unfairly profit off of the recent catalog sale. The plaintiffs have been paid everything they are owed. We are confident that we will prevail. And when we do, we will hold plaintiffs and their counsel responsible for bringing this meritless case.”

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The lawsuit, filed Jan. 20 to the Supreme Court of New York, states that Dylan and Levy signed a contract in 1975 guaranteeing the latter 35% of all royalties and most other benefits for the 10 songs they wrote together, seven of which appeared on the “Desire” album, including the single “Hurricane.” It contends that requests for compensation for the Levy-cowritten songs as part of the Dec. 2020 catalog sale were denied by both the Dylan camp and Universal Music Publishing Group.

The estate’s lawyers, representing Levy’s widow, Claudia Levy, are asking for $1.75 million as their fair share of the catalog sale, plus $2 million in punitive damages. They arrived at the $1.75 million figure by looking at the reported $300 million sale and then breaking it down by the estimated 600 songs that are pat of the overall Dylan catalog, and figuring what the share would be for the 10 that Levy co-wrote.

Certain to be part of any defense Dylan’s camp mounts is the fact that Levy’s contributions were contracted on a “work for hire” basis. The Levy suit mentions this, but contends that it was an “atypical” work-for-hire situation.

Levy does not share any ownership of the songs in question, despite being guaranteed the 35% royalty rate for any income that they generate. Going forward, the income he would formerly have received from the songs will all go to Universal Publishing, while Levy’s estate will continue to collect 35% of the income generated by the co-writes.

The 10 songs listed as Dylan/Levy co-writes are “Hurricane,” “Isis,” “Mozambique,” “Oh Sister,” “Joey,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Black Diamond Bay,” which appeared on the “Desire” album, plus “Catfish,” “Money Blues” and “Rita Mae.” “Catfish” eventually appeared on the first release in Dylan’s “Bootleg Series,” and “Rita Mae” appeared as a single B-side (and was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis). The 10th song, “Money Blues,” remains unreleased, although the words were published in a complete book of Dylan lyrics.

Levy’s “legacy continually has been diminished and hidden by the Dylan Defendants since JL’s first collaborations with Dylan,” the filing says.

Levy died in 2004. His multi-leveled career included being a practicing psychologist, avant-garde theater director and playwright. He also was said to be instrumental in the creation and direction of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, although the suit complains that he was never properly billed at the time and was unfairly not even mentioned in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 documentary about the tour.

The suit says that Levy was eventually paid for having his songs included in Scorsese’s movie, but only after some effort on the estate’s part.

“Dylan contracted with JL to direct the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan’s 1975 tour featuring live performances of the songs on ‘Desire’,” the suit says. “JL focused on staging and presentation and continued rewriting the Compositions, but was never included on the program or posters for the Rolling Thunder Revue…. In 2019, ‘Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese’ was released, depicting Dylan’s industry-changing 1975 tour. Despite JL’s prominent role directing the Rolling Thunder Revue and writing seven of the nine Compositions on ‘Desire,’ JL was not identified in the film as director or songwriter, let alone celebrated as one of the driving forces behind the Rolling Thunder Revue. … In early 2020, Plaintiffs discovered that they were not being paid synchronization license fees … Only after Plaintiffs demanded payment was such revenue allegedly paid to Plaintiffs. This was not an isolated incident.”

Claudia Levy’s lawyer, says, “Using estimates of 600 songs comprising the song catalog and a sale price of $300,000,000.00 (both of which are low estimates), the sale price per song in the Catalog Sale is or would be approximately $500,000.00 for a total of approximately $5,000,000.00 for all compositions. Plaintiffs are entitled to 35% of the income and/or revenue derived from the Catalog Sale thereof (i.e., 35% of $5,000,000.00). Plaintiffs’ prorated share of the income generated from the Catalog Sale is approximately $1,750,000.00 or in excess thereof.”

It should be noted, though, that even if a court agreed that Levy was entitled to a portion of the catalog sale, it might be difficult establishing that a lesser album track, B-side or (in the case of “Money Blues”) completely unreleased song is equal in value to “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

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