Anita Baker Wants Her Masters Back. Getting Them Won't Be Easy

She's relying on a little-known law to reclaim the rights to her old work, but there's a limit to how much it can do for her.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
Anita Baker
Photo of Anita Baker by Jay West / Getty Images

Last week, the legendary R&B singer Anita Baker asked her fans to stop buying and streaming her music while she fights to reclaim ownership of her back catalog. She wrote on Twitter that she has "outlived" all of her record contracts, and that after owning her master recordings for 30 years, the labels that hold the rights to them are required "by law" to return them to her.

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It's easy to understand why her fans would be rooting for her, and if the contracts she signed specifically allow for it, she may be able to succeed. But in her tweet, Baker appears to be referencing one U.S. copyright law in particular—and based on the fine print, she probably wouldn't be able to use it to take back ownership of her old music. Not most of it, at least.

As VICE has previously reported, artists who release music through a record label typically sign away the rights to their masters—their actual sound recordings—and give those rights to a label. Most label contracts, and especially older ones, stipulate that the label owns those master rights forever. But under an obscure provision of U.S. copyright law, artists do have a chance to get them back. 

That provision, Section 203 of the Copyright Act, is what Baker seems to be referencing in her tweet. It dictates that 35 years after an author signs away the rights to a copyrighted work, they can file a request to legally reclaim them. For musicians like Baker, that means that roughly 35 years after a record comes out, they can take back ownership of it. 

Unfortunately for Baker, most of her music hasn't been out long enough for her to use Section 203 to reclaim it. Six of her seven albums came out less than 35 years ago.

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That said, Baker's first album, The Songstress, came out 37 years ago; she should be able file a claim for the master rights to it right now. And she should be able to do the same with her second album, Rapture, once it turns 35 next year. 

Even still, Section 203 contains an exception that could make things difficult for her. It doesn't apply to music created under "work-for-hire" contracts, which were ubiquitous back when Baker signed record deals with Beverly Glen (which released The Songstress) and Elektra (which released Rapture) in the 1980s. These contracts essentially state that artists are de-facto employees of a label, whose music becomes company property the second it's recorded. In recent years, labels have argued in court that because they have always held the rights to that music, they are under no obligation to give those rights back to an artist who never owned them. 

Maybe that won't be a problem for Baker. Without having seen her contracts, it's impossible to know for sure that they include work-for-hire language—and even if they do, she may be able to find a legal workaround. Either way, Baker needs to act fast: Once a recording becomes eligible under Section 203, artists have five years to file a request to reclaim it. On top of that, they have to file the request two years before the date they want to reclaim their rights. That means that, at best, Baker wouldn't own the rights to The Songstress and Rapture until 2023 and 2024, respectively. Even in that scenario, she'd only be reclaiming the rights to 16 out of the 64 studio recordings she made during her career.

Ownership has become a dominant topic of conversation in the music industry lately, thanks in part to Taylor Swift's quest to re-record her masters, Kanye West's crusade against what he calls "slave contracts," and the multi-million dollar sums private equity firms are paying for artists' back catalogs

Because of that, you'd think that lots of musicians would try to claw back the rights to their work through Section 203. But according to Billboard, a shockingly low number of them have attempted to do so, and even fewer have succeeded. It's hard to say exactly why that is—but one major reason could be that filing a Section 203 claim likely means going to war with a label in court, and many artists aren't willing or wealthy enough to do that. Spending millions in legal fees on a fight you may not win is a daunting prospect.

Maybe Baker is willing to take on that fight. But given that most of her recordings are owned by Warner Music Group—a company worth more than $16 billion—she could be in for a  long one.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.