Music Law Database

Launched in mid-December, The Discography: Legal Encyclopedia of Popular Music is a new database that links to legal decisions relevant to the music industry. Maintained by Washington University’s Center for Empirical Research in the Law (CERL), the site is the brainchild of Loren Wells, a recent University of Washington law school graduate. He began working on the site as a personal project, and then developed it for use in a law school paper. CERL invited him to launch the project full-scale. The central Database includes 1,300 entries covering 2,400 court opinions (including over 30,000 pieces of data) spanning almost 200 years, fully summarized and searchable by numerous variables, featuring nearly every artist, covering copyrights and contracts, trusts, torts and more. There’s also a Blog and up-to-date legal music News.

Wells envisions that the site will be useful for academics, music writers or journalists, and independent music managers who wish to gain familiarity with the legal aspects of the music industry. Some of the most interesting disputes have been eliminated from the database as it does not contain cases that settled out of court. The academic or practical usefulness of the database is unclear for now as Wells decides how to organize the “Case Type” search parameters. The site could provide anything from basic entertainment to meaningful guidance for small-time music managers trying to run a business and protect their clients.

The National Law Journal article “Project marries recent law graduate’s love of music with his new vocation” has more details on the database. This YouTube video features Loren Wells explaining features of The Discography and its use in answering such questions as whether black leather pants qualify as a tax deduction for rock stars. Researchers interested in music can see how the courts dealt with this question and nearly any other legal issue involving the music industry.

A search of recent Second Circuit cases dealing with the issue of royalites lead to the case of Robinson v. Sanctuary Record Groups, Ltd., 383 Fed.Appx. 54, 2010 WL 2649849 and this short description: “The Sugar Hill Gang, Grand Master Flash, The Wall Street Mob, The Furious Five, and Grand Master Melle Mel, along with Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill Records, godmother of rap music, and former member of Mickey and Sylvia, which had a few hits back in the day, sued Sanctuary Records Group for release from record contracts. After obtaining a default judgment for rescission of the contracts, Plaintiffs sought damages in the realm of $30 million, even though they’d initially only sought rescission. and damages from unpaid royalties. Artists were released from contracts after default judgment, but were awarded no damages. Both Sanctuary and the Plaintiffs appealed, the former seeking to vacate the default and the latter requesting monetary relief. After first being unsuccessful, the Court of Appeals later remanded to the District Court to reconsider their denial to vacate the default; it is the preference of the courts to resolve disputes on the merits.”