photo of Kesha, Kesha lawsuit

If you follow the world of music at all, you are probably aware of the Kesha lawsuit that is making waves across social media. It actually involves a series of lawsuits between recording artist Kesha (formerly known as Ke$ha) and her producer Dr. Luke. From 2009 to 2013, Kesha and Dr. Luke produced “Tik Tok”, “Your Love Is My Drug” and “We R Who We R” and collaborated on Pit Bull’s single, “Timber.” Proper punctuation aside, each of these songs are major hits for Kesha and Dr. Luke’s production company, Kemosabe Records; an affiliate, so to speak, of  Sony Records.  The lawsuit that was to follow highlights the complex arena of music contracts, song ownership, and what can happen when it all falls apart.


The Kesha Lawsuit

photo of Kesha, Kesha lawsuit

Photo credit: People Magazine

Kesha, born Kesha Sebert, started this decade as one of the music industry’s rising stars. In the past few years, however, her star power has faded as her legal battle with her record label, and producer languishes on. So how did this happen? How did an industry star and his singing sensation get to the point where their biggest claim to recent fame is a trending hashtag? (#freeKesha  #Kesha and #drluke were all trending this week.) Oddly enough, it appears that the whole incident started as an online fan petition to sever Kesha’s relationship with her producer in 2013.

By October of 2014, the lawsuit between Dr. Luke and his protege would include counter suits, multiple court filings,  and cross country courtrooms.  The crux of the Kesha Lawsuit against Dr. Luke alleges that the producer inflicted sexual, verbal and emotional abuse against the singer throughout their working relationship. Ms. Sebert argues that Dr. Luke, his real name Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald for legal filings, took control of her life and career; affecting the singer almost to the point of death, according to the suit. The suit also alleges that Dr. Luke sexually assaulted the singer, although criminal charges were never filed. The lawsuit seeks to void Kesha’s contracts with Dr. Luke and his business subsidiaries. It also seeks damages for the singer and the right to work with other recording studios and publishing units.

Dr. Luke fired back with a countersuit, arguing breach of contract and defamation. He also argued that the Kesha’s refusal to record new music was tantamount to extortion. According to the New York Daily News, Kesha has six more albums to produce with Dr. Luke, Kemosabe Records, and Sony to fulfill the terms of her contract.

Fighting In Two Courtrooms

The Kesha lawsuit was originally filed in California. Dr. Luke, in turn, filed a countersuit in New York. The bi-coastal suits created headlines as each court weighed the legal issues surrounding the cases. In February a New York judge determined that Kesha would not be granted an injunction to record with other producers.  A subsequent California court ruling determined that the case must first be resolved in New York courts, per the contracts signed by both parties. In April a New York judge dismissed Kesha’s abuse claims, citing statute of limitation restrictions.  Just yesterday Kesha withdrew her lawsuit from California to focus on the legal battle in New York courts.

Of course, this suit is also playing out in the court of public opinion, with fans and celebrities lining up to offer their support for Kesha. Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to Kesha to help with ongoing financial needs. Lady Gaga, Lorde, Demi Lovato, Adele, and Kelly Clarkson have all publicly offered their support for the star. After the February ruling against Kesha, over 100,000 fans signed a petition promising to boycott Sony Records for its role in the case.

Sony made a statement in February to the New York Times in an attempt to clarify the nature of the contract, which was executed between Kesha and Dr. Luke. “Sony has made it possible for Kesha to record without any connection, involvement or interaction with Luke whatsoever, but Sony is not in a position to terminate the contractual relationship between Luke and Kesha.”  Since it is not a direct party to the lawsuit, this represents the limit of Sony’s ability to intercede.


What’s Next For Kesha

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit: Time Magazine

As of yesterday, it appears that Kesha is ready to take Sony up on it offer to help. In a statement by her attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, Kesha wants to revitalize her career by releasing new music. According to the statement, the singer just delivered 20 new songs to the label, which Dr. Luke would not personally produce but would still partially own under his label along with all of Kesha’s previous hit songs.

This incredibly messy suit highlights the complicated nature not only of contracts in the music industry but also of the tangled web of music ownership. Kesha is not the first to feel the pinch of contract disputes. In fact, many famous names, like Prince, Nine Inch Nails, and John Fogerty all engaged in legal suits with their labels. Unfortunately for Kesha, given the number of artists that have faced legal battles with their record companies, many of the loopholes, like live concerts and “accidental” bootlegs, that have helped previous artists are not an option for the star.

Lessons For Recording Artists

This is a much bigger issue for recording artists as the line between singer, songwriter, and producer becomes blurred. Ownership of the copyright for sound recordings aside, ownership of the copyright for the songs themselves become far more convoluted when multiple parties collaborate. Recently Kesha announced a new tour, with a profane name and a promise to sing all new songs. While this court battle rages on it appears that Kesha may be taking a different approach to getting out of her contract with Dr. Luke; releasing as much music as quickly as possible.

While much of this case revolves around contract issues, the overall lesson for musicians may be harder to stomach. It is vital to understand every aspect of the industry. Know what it is you are signing and understand what each partnership, collaboration, and contract mean for the ownership of your music. The only way to do that is to work with an attorney. If you are a musician or recording artist, and you have questions about copyright as it affects your art, contact my office today.

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