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Taylor Swift's Messy Legal Situation, Explained

The ongoing drama between Swift and Scooter Braun has only gotten more convoluted. It's unclear what she'll even be able to play at her AMAs performance this weekend.

by Jessica Meiselman
Nov 20 2019, 5:11pm

On November 14, Taylor Swift posted a series of text screenshots across her various social platforms, with the caption "Don't know what else to do." In the statement, she claimed that SB Projects—Scooter Braun’s self-described “diversified entertainment and media company,” which acquired her former label, Big Machine Label Group, this past summer—was holding her music hostage in the lead-up to this year’s American Music Awards, where the pop star will be honored with an Artist of the Decade award.

“I’ve been planning to perform a medley of my hits through the decade on the show,” she wrote. “Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun have now said that I’m not allowed to perform my old songs on television because they claim that would be re-recording my music before I’m allowed to next year. Additionally—and this isn’t the way I had planned on telling you this news—Netflix has created a documentary about my life for the past few years. Scott and Scooter have declined the use of my older music or performance footage for the project, even though there is no mention of either of them or Big Machine Records anywhere in the film.” Taylor added that Scott Borchetta, President and CEO of BMLG, had told her team she would only be allowed to play her old music if she agreed to hold off on recording copycat versions of her songs until 2020—and that Taylor needed “stop talking about him and Scooter Braun.”

She ended the note with what has turned out to be a controversial request—encouraging her millions of followers to take action on her behalf. “Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this,” she wrote, prompting some fans to take her request a little too seriously, releasing Scott and Scooter’s private contact information on Twitter.

The following day, BMLG responded to Taylor’s allegations in a statement to Billboard: “At no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special. In fact, we do not have the right to keep her from performing live anywhere. Since Taylor’s decision to leave Big Machine last fall, we have continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties as she promotes her current record in which we do not financially participate.” The label further rebuffed Taylor for making “a unilateral decision last night to enlist her fanbase in a calculated manner that greatly affects the safety of our employees and their families.”

In essence, Taylor is alleging that BMLG is enforcing the terms of their contract in a manner that limits her ability to perform and use the recordings of her music. BMLG is refuting her allegation, claiming that they have accommodated Taylor’s requests to use her music.

To make sense of this situation, we have to start with Taylor’s July 1 Tumblr post following the announcement that SB Projects had purchased BMLG. BMLG had released Taylor’s first six albums, which meant that SB Projects would be acquiring the copyright for sound recordings from those works, among other materials created by Taylor. As the owner of BMLG, SB Projects would also be inheriting the ability to enforce contractual obligations stemming from Taylor’s pre-existing agreement with that label, such as the "re-record" restriction Taylor would later point to in her November 14 post: Until 2020, the artist would be barred from re-recording versions of her early works and releasing and distributing them independently of BMLG. In her July 1 post, Taylor called SB Projects’ purchase of BMLG her "worst case scenario," claiming that she’d experienced "incessant, manipulative bullying" "at [Braun’s] hands for years" and accusing him of stripping her of her life’s work, which she wasn’t "given an opportunity to buy."

Scooter and BMLG’s allies immediately responded on social media, igniting discord between fans of both camps. Scooter's wife Yael Cohen Braun accused Taylor of having a "temper tantrum"; BMLG published a post on its website sharing text messages, emails, and other communications that, from their perspective, showed that the sale was not malicious—and that the label had tried to give Taylor what she wanted (ownership of her earlier albums) in exchange for agreeing to a new contract. "Taylor had every chance," the label wrote, "Scooter has always been and will continue to be a supporter and honest custodian for Taylor and her music."

In August, Taylor publicly confirmed that she intended to re-record her early records once she was not contractually barred from doing so, in November 2020. Legally speaking, she has every right to do so: She is an owner on the compositions to her songs and is free to create recordings of them, provided that she is not contractually prohibited from doing so. In November 2018, Taylor revealed that she had signed with Universal Music Group; in a subsequent Tumblr post, she indicated she would own her masters under that deal. In an interview with Robin Roberts shortly after the release of her August 2019 album, Lover, she explained that the "[o]ne thing that's really special to me is that it's the first one that I will own."

To clarify exactly what SB owns, and how that restricts Taylor’s use of her music, we must first understand that music copyright is divided into two sets of rights—the composition, or the songwriting (think: sheet music), and the sound recording, which applies only to that specific recording of the song. In the two instances, the copyright holder owns a set of exclusive rights, but some uses implicate both kinds of copyright. For example, one could conceivably perform a composition (e.g. performing a live concert) without obtaining permission from the owner of the sound recording, but making a music video requires permission to use both the sound recording and the composition. As the writer of many of her songs, Taylor is an owner of the composition rights to her last six albums, but BMLG owns the recordings themselves.

Separately, on the contractual front, Scooter Braun now owns Taylor's earlier label, BMLG, meaning that contractual obligations that she agreed to with BMLG can be enforced by SB Projects. Many label contracts include a "no record" provision that restricts artists from re-recording music during a certain period—and judging from Taylor’s public statements, the same would seem to apply to her contract with BMLG. There is nothing particularly malicious about these terms, but there are certainly scenarios in which they could prove restricting for an artist. Though BMLG cannot block Taylor from performing her own compositions, it does have the right to stop her from recording a version of the song that would interfere with their exclusive rights to her sound recordings—such as during an appearance at the AMAs, where her performance of the material would likely be recorded and rebroadcast to thousands of viewers. (On Monday evening, BMLG with Dick Clark Productions, which produces the AMAs, released a statement indicating they had "come to terms on a licensing agreement that approves [BMLG’s] artists' performances to stream post show and for re-broadcast on mutually approved platforms"—though Dick Clark Productions later clarified that it did not "agree to, create, authorize or distribute a statement in partnership with Big Machine Label Group regarding Taylor Swift's performance at the 2019 American Music Awards.") Swift will perform at the AMAs, but what exactly she's actually able to perform is unclear.

It’s easy to see why Taylor would be frustrated over not having full control over how she uses her music, but BMLG does legally have the right to refuse licensing opportunities for any reason they see fit. By all appearances, though, there would seem to be more going on beneath the surface: In their November 15 statement, BMLG also indicated that “Taylor has admitted to contractually owing millions of dollars and multiple assets to our company,” though they do not specify what those obligations are. Taylor’s publicist Tree Paine fired back on Twitter, stating that BMLG owes Taylor $7.9 million in unpaid royalties.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to guess why BMLG would take issue with Taylor’s music appearing in a Netflix documentary or the artist performing old songs at the AMAs: both opportunities would only ensure that more listeners hear her songs, enabling BMLG to further monetize the sound recordings they own during their brief period of exclusivity. Certainly Taylor and BMLG’s back-and-forth suggests that there is a financial aspect to this disagreement, but given that these particular opportunities seem to be a win-win for both sides, it's hard to believe that money is the only thing at the heart of this dispute.

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