A botique Seattle law firm that provided considerable legal representation for musician George Clinton now also has brought the funk, winning an appellate decision that will see masters of the song writer’s recordings sold to satisfy big debts he owes to his one-time counsel.
After long battles among Clinton, Hendricks & Lewis, and Warner Bros. Music, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed a ruling allowing for the sale of the masters, resolving one of the main issues in the case: the decision to allow works made-for-hire to be sold to pay debt.
This was permitted only because the copyright had been voluntarily transferred by Warner Bros. prior to this battle. Because Hendricks & Lewis showed that Clinton owed $1.7 million, the firm asked the court to force the sale of his recordings: One Nation Under a Groove, Hardcore Jollies, Uncle Jam Wants You, and The Electric Spanking of War Babies, to pay up his account.
The appellate judges obliged this, reckoning that it might not have under others circumstances. Appellate Judge Morgan Christen, writing for the three-member panel, allowed the sale under Section 201(e) protection of U.S. copyright law, deeming a work that previously has been voluntarily transferred is not accorded protection of involuntary transfer of protected works. Further, because Clinton wrote these pieces while working for Warner Bros., the company, in fact, is the initial author and owner of the work, making Section 201 protection unavailable to Clinton, the appellate court said.
What does this mean for work-for-hire copyright law? This created a newly carved out realm of litigation for entertainment lawyers, copyrighted properties usually cannot be forcibly transferred. But considering the works made-for-hire may have been transferred once already, this may affect future lawsuits by artists who have copyright to their works transferred to them at some point in their career. Where will that leave the industry now, as this landmark decision could change many future cases regarding the sale of copyrighted properties?