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Bad Lawyering On "The Good Wife": Setting The Record Straight On Music Publishing Law

By Eric S. Goldman

Even though I'm not usually a fan of shows featuring lawyers, I am a big fan of "The Good Wife". So when "The Good Wife" ran an episode entitled David And Goliath that delved deeply into my legal wheelhouse, I was excited. The show was all about copyright law and music publishing, and I've been an entertainment lawyer for 20ish years. Yet as the episode unfolded, I kept finding myself saying: "Wait a minute, that's not right. That's not how the law works."

Things started out well, because the fact pattern was pretty interesting. Two little known singer/ songwriters recorded a pop version of a rap song entitled THICKY TRICK. Basically, the pop version took the entire song lyric from the rap song, slowed down the tempo and added a bubble gum melody. The singer/ songwriters thought that the pop treatment highlighted how ridiculous the lyrics were. The pop treatment of the song was then performed on a "Glee"-style television show. After the show, the pop version of the song became a top seller on iTunes, generating millions of dollars in sales.

The issue was: could the singer/ songwriters sue the television show for copyright infringement over the misappropriation of a song they did not write?

Sadly, things rapidly went downhill. The episode touched on a number of copyright and music publishing issues, and pretty much got them all wrong.

1. Compulsory License. First, a little background. The U.S. Constitution laid the groundwork for modern copyright law in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, which reads "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries". In other words, a copyright is a man-made bargain - authors give the public access to their work, and the authors get a state-mandated monopoly on the exploitation of that work.

In the music publishing world, a license of the right to record a song is called a mechanical license. The basic copyright bargain found in the Constitution has led to a compulsory mechanical licensing scheme. Artists can record and distribute their music, provided that anyone else can record and distribute new versions of that music by obtaining a government-mandated mechanical license. In other words, the government tells artists that the liberal licensing of their works is "compulsory."

In "The Good Wife", the manager for the singer/ songwriters obtained a compulsory mechanical license because he wanted to do the simplest thing. The problem is, no one in the music industry uses compulsory licenses because they are unduly burdensome. Insert joke about government-run programs here.

Compulsory licenses have vigorous accounting and record keeping requirements - the costs of complying with the terms of a compulsory license usually exceed the income generated by the use of the licensed song. So pretty much everyone in the industry obtains mechanical licenses for previously recorded songs from record labels and music publishers, who are in the business of granting those licenses and grant them pretty freely.

Mistake Number One: It would have been far easier and cheaper to get a mechanical license for the rap song from the music publisher or record label than it would have been to obtain and comply with a compulsory mechanical license.

2. Derivative Copyright. The lawyers on "The Good Wife" spent a fair amount of time running around trying to obtain a derivative copyright in the covered rap song. However, there is no such thing as a derivative copyright.

There is such a thing as a derivative work. A derivative work is a new work based on a pre-existing work. When someone produces a Broadway musical version of a film, the Broadway musical is a derivative work. There is also copyright in a derivative work. That Broadway musical qualifies for all of the protections available under copyright law as an original work of authorship. Yet there is no such thing as a derivative copyright.

The basic issue on the show was that the singer/ songwriters incorporated a new melody into the rap song. All of the lawyers on the show accepted without question the proposition that incorporating a new melody into the rap song made the cover version a derivative work. In order to create a legal derivative work, the singer/ songwriters would have had to obtain an underlying rights agreement giving them permission to create a new pop song based on the original rap song.

However, was the cover version a derivative work based on the rap version? Maybe not.

The singer/ songwriters obtained a compulsory mechanical license in the rap song. A mechanical license to record a previously recorded song, compulsory or otherwise, includes the right to make a new arrangement of that song to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved. An arrangement can be defined as chord progression, harmonies, accompaniment rhythm and musical fill phrases which define the style and feel of a song.

It's not clear whether, by incorporating a new melody line, the singer/ songwriters created a derivative work, which was beyond the scope of their compulsory mechanical license, or merely created a new arrangement which would be within the scope of their license.

Mistake Number Two: There is no such thing as a derivative copyright. There is such a thing as copyright in a derivative work, and there is such a thing as an underlying rights agreement which grants permission to create a derivate work.

Mistake Number Three: It is not a foregone conclusion that incorporating new music into a song creates a derivative work. It is a question of fact whether the changes are merely a permitted new arrangement.

3. Satire. The lawyers for the singer/ songwriters, including The Good Wife herself, argued that the cover version was a satire of the rap version. Such assertion confused satire with parody, and then misapplied the parody defense to a copyright infringement claim.

A satire misappropriates material protected by copyright in order to comment on society as a whole. A parody misappropriates material protected by copyright in order to comment on the copied material. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 US 569 (1994), the Supreme Court reasoned that, because of this distinction, it was much easier for a parody to qualify as a fair use than it is for a satire.

In this instance, the singer/ songwriters were intentionally making fun of the song they copied, as well as rap music in general. So, rather than arguing satire, the singer/ songwriters' lawyers should have been arguing parody, as parody was the stronger (and more accurate) defense.

That being said, this cover song took the entire lyric from the underlying rap song. While a parody may take enough from the original work in order to conjure up that original work in the minds of the audience, a parody may not take the entire original work.

Mistake Number Four: The best available defense was that the cover song was a parody, not that it was a satire.

Mistake Number Five: The parody cover song probably used too much of the original rap song to qualify as a fair use, since it took the entire lyric.

4. Master Recording Copyright. The dispute between the singer/ songwriters and the television show ultimately hinged on one thing. The TV show's version of the song included very specific background noise - bowling balls hitting pins. And the singer/ songwriters' version of the song was recorded in a bowling alley. Which proved that the television show actually broadcast the singer/ songwriters recording.

Lawyer Alicia Florrick noted: "That's just theft." Yes, but theft of what?

The lawyers had been arguing that the TV show stole the singer/ songwriters' song, violating the copyright in that song. Yet the case was resolved when it was demonstrated that the TV show stole the master recording of the singer/ songwriters' song, violating the copyright in the master recording.

This is a tricky concept. An MP3 recording of a song incorporates two copyrights. The first is the copyright in the song. The second is the copyright in the master recording of the song. If you want to make a new recording of the song itself, you get a mechanical license, compulsory or otherwise. If you want to use the specific master recording of the song incorporated into the .mp3 file, you have to get a master use license.

This distinction between the copyright in a work of art and the copyright in the physical copy of that work of art plays out in odd ways. For example, I own several original oil paintings. While I have the right to display the physical copies of those paintings in my possession, I do not have the right to make and sell copies of those paintings. The right to make and sell copies remains with the artists.

Why is this important in our episode? It is because while there was a lot of talk about whether or not the singer/ songwriters were entitled to a copyright in their cover version of the original rap song, there was absolutely no discussion about who owned the copyright in the master recording of the cover song. All parties concerned simply assumed that the singer/ songwriters owned the copyright in the masters.

The thing is, the artist almost never owns the copyright in master recordings. The label usually owns the copyright in the master recordings, because the label supplies the recording equipment and personnel necessary to create them. Here, the master recording was created in a bowling alley owned by an unidentified party, using recording equipment and people provided by an unidentified party. It's entirely possible that the singer/ songwriters don't own the copyright in the master recording of their cover song. Which means that the happy ending in the episode may be very, very short-lived.

Mistake Number Six. The lawyers did not distinguish between the copyright in the song and the copyright in the master recording of the song.

Mistake Number Seven. The lawyers assumed that the singer/ songwriters owned the copyright in the master recording of the songs.

Fortunately for all parties concerned, I don't think most people watch "The Good Wife" for its realistic portrayal of the legal profession. On the show, first year lawyers spend a lot of time in court; associates have reasonable expectations of making partner in their fourth year; litigators routinely handle both civil and criminal matters; and the current economy is the perfect time for a Chicago law firm to go national.

That being said, I can't help but feel a little disappointed. For a brief second, I felt validated by "The Good Wife", because what I do for a living was deemed interesting enough to supply the plot for an episode of a top-rated TV show. It's kind of like getting to sit at the cool kids' table at lunch, only to find out that it's because they want you to do their homework.

Maybe I just need to watch less television.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 11, 2014 10:05 AM.

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