Opinion: the dispute over ownership rights of the pop star's recordings shows the lack of control many artists have over their own work

Taylor Swift is no stranger to the headlines, but recent events have seen the pop queen fuming as never before. What's all the fuss about? And why is the sale of a US record company making headlines around the world?

It’s all down to Taylor. On the last day of June, Swift posted an emotional message on Tumblr about the sale of the rights to her past music to a man whom she accuses of "incessant, manipulative bullying." The pop star's previous record label, Big Machine, had been sold to Scooter Braun’s Ithica Holdings, for a reported price tag of around $300 million. The sale included the rights to the back catalogues of all the artists who had been signed to it, including Swift. 

Much of the debate in the headlines has centred around various relationships and past difficulties between the people involved. But beyond all the celebrity gossip and name calling, what exactly is the transaction which Swift has called her "worst case scenario?" 

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The issue at the heart of this debate is the ownership rights to Swift’s past recordings. When a new recording is made, the original "master" recording of the album is copyrighted and then used to create all other copies of the work. These copies include CDs, downloads, online streams or those licensed for movies, ads etc. Thus, whoever owns the recording copyrights and masters also owns the right to license and control the use of all copies made from them. 

These master recordings are not only important for ownership rights, but they are also generally the highest quality recordings in existence. Thus, they are the best source for later reprints and remasters. It is for this reason that the New York Times' story about Universal Music’s alleged cover-up of a major fire which may have destroyed thousands of master recordings in 2008 has caused such uproar in the music community. 

When Braun purchased Big Machine, the main value of the company was in the master recordings which it owned. Not surprisingly, the most valuable of these recordings were those made by Swift prior to her departure from the label last year, when she signed a new deal with Universal Music.  

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Swift’s original deal with Big Machine was signed when she was 15 years of age and had little or no bargaining power. When an artist signs a deal with a record label, the deal nearly always involves the label becoming the owner of any recordings made. The reasoning is that the record label puts up the money to make the recording and thus takes on the risk if the album does not sell well. The artist then must repay all this money from their royalties, but the record label still owns the recording even once it’s been totally repaid. It’s a bit like a house loan where the bank still owns the house once you’ve paid off the mortgage.

To be fair to the labels, the artists in many cases never make that money back. So the risk to the label is substantial, and they rely on superstar artists like Swift to make enough money to compensate for the ones that never turned a profit. 

One of Swift’s main criticisms of Big Machine’s former owner Scott Borchetta is that he did not allow her the opportunity to purchase her master recordings before he sold the company. But in the world of record label sales, it has to be said that the value of the company itself would be greatly diminished if the single biggest artist on the label’s books were to buy her music back before the sale. Without a contract clause specifically allowing the artist the opportunity to purchase his or her masters back, the chances are very slim for the opportunity to be offered. Swift may have thought her superstar status would give her more rights than the average artist, but even Paul McCartney has had little luck gaining control of his creative output, despite concerted efforts to do so for decades. 

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To be clear, what has been sold here is the right to control the recordings. Swift will still receive royalties for her past work. But when someone wants to use her recordings for any reason, they will now have to negotiate with Braun’s company. While receiving part of the profits from the use of her recordings, Swift will not be able to negotiate her own deals with them, nor decide whether to allow a particular use or not. For an artist who has kept very close tabs on the use of her music, even keeping it from appearing on streaming services for a time, this will be a blow. 

Swift’s new recording contract with Universal Music does allow her to maintain ownership of any new music she creates. This new contract was signed last year backed by the full bargaining power of her global success, and looks very different from those most artists must accept. While Swift may dislike the situation in which she finds herself, at least her previous success (powered by Big Machine) has gained her the ability to renegotiate her future rights. For most artists who lack Swift’s superstar status, lack of control over their own artistic creations will continue to be an unfortunate reality. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ