After a tension-filled week between Scott Borchetta, Scooter Braun and Taylor Swift, legal experts break down the fight over the superstar's masters

By Tomás Mier
July 03, 2019 06:40 PM
Scott Borchetta, Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun
Rick Diamond/Getty Images; Larry Busacca/Getty Images; Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

As the drama between Taylor Swift, Scooter Braun and Big Machine Label’s Scott Borchetta continues to boil, fans have begun to speculate what the “You Need to Calm Down” singer can do legally to take back her masters while also trying to decipher whether Swift’s initial contract with Big Machine was fair.

PEOPLE spoke exclusively with two entertainment legal experts — including the lawyer who was hired by Prince during his initial signing with Warner Brothers — to break down the case.

In a statement posted to his website hours after Swift released a scathing Tumblr post accusing Braun of being “manipulative,” Borchetta claimed that he offered Swift, 29, a deal that gave her “100% of all Taylor Swift assets … to be transferred to her immediately upon signing the new agreement.”

“We were working together on a new type of deal for our new streaming world that was not necessarily tied to ‘albums’ but more of a length of time,” added Borchetta, who also denied having any knowledge of bullying by Braun.

Swift, however, claimed in her Tumblr post that she was only given the chance to sign back to Big Machine and “‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in.”

Referring to Borchetta’s statement, which included a small part of Swift’s negotiations with BMG, Susan Hilderley — who co-founded UCLA Law’s Music Industry Legal Clinic — says the excerpt declares an exchange for an unspecified number of additional albums of which “she will get ownership of the copyrights” after nearly a decade.

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“In those new masters that she records, and also her prior albums, Big Machine has a license to exploit them for a period of time,” she tells PEOPLE. “They are distributing the record, making all of the profits off of the sales, like they would if they own the copyrights. Most of the money you make when a record is new … They’re still going to make a significant amount of money from exploiting these rights.”

On Tuesday, Swift’s lawyer Donald Passman told PEOPLE in a statement that “Scott Borchetta never gave Taylor Swift an opportunity to purchase her masters, or the label, outright with a check in the way he is now apparently doing for others.”

A source close to the situation also told Variety that Swift was not offered the opportunity to buy either her masters or the label without signing a deal that would bind her to Big Machine, apparently for another 10 years, and whomever Borchetta chose to sell the label to.

If Swift chooses to forgo any further negotiations and approaches masters ownership directly with copyright law, it could come down to a waiting game for the Grammy winner, says attorney L. Lee Phillips, who represented Prince for his original contract with Warner Brothers.

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Philips said that Swift could legally reclaim ownership of those copyrights — other artists like Journey‘s Steve Perry have done so that way — but not until 35 years have passed since the song’s initial release. 

Could Swift do anything legally to hinder Big Machine’s sale? Hilderley says it’s quite unlikely.

“She doesn’t have any legal basis to challenge this sale, because Big Machine owns the masters, and has the right to sell itself to anybody it wants to,” she says.

But after the sale, could Swift buy her masters back from Braun? Hilderley and Phillips agree that though it is a possibility that she could buy the masters, it is also unlikely.

“He may say, ‘I’m gonna hold on to them ’til I die — I have a right to,’” Phillips says.

Taylor Swift
Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Hilderley explained that the steps Swift is taking now may work to her advantage: negative publicity could pressure investors to pull out of the deal or convince Big Machine to strike a deal post-sale.

“If I were Taylor Swift, I’d probably be doing exactly what she has been doing, which is making it a publicity campaign,” she says.

In her Tumblr post, the star said she hoped up-and-coming musicians would learn from her experience. “Hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation,” she wrote. “You deserve to own the art you make.”

Since she has written or co-written all of her songs dating back to her debut, self-titled album, Swift still holds the copyright for their composition. This means that if a commercial or movie would want to include a Swift track, they’d need to request the label’s permission and her permission as well.

“Sometimes the record labels get frustrated about that,” Phillips says. “And they may come to the table in some fashion.”

Big Machine signed 15-year-old Swift when she was an unknown singer-songwriter. Phillips and Hilderley said that signing away the copyright ownership of the masters is “the norm” for unknown artists.

Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

“They’re taking a big risk and spending money for recording costs, marketing and promotion and advertising … it’s really viewed as a quid pro quo at that time,” Phillips says. “And of course, years later, when they become very famous, they’re very upset about that whole situation.”

“I can’t tell you the number of teenagers that have signed contracts with labels, and labels offer money and they have not succeeded,” he adds.

Prince was outspoken about the lack of control he had over his own music. After signing with Warner Bros. with Phillips’ help, Prince rebelled against his contract and repeatedly wrote the word “slave” on his cheek in public.

“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996.

Prince eventually got his masters back from Warner Bros. in 2014 as part of a new deal that required him to release two new albums through the label, according to Billboard.

If Philips could go back and change the provisions on the Prince deal, he says he would — if he had a “crystal ball.”

“Would I have done anything differently if I knew what the future was gonna hold? Sure. Absolutely,” reflects Philips. “Unfortunately, that’s not reality. Nobody has a crystal ball. Nobody knows.”

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