On July 30th, 2021, a Supreme Court for the State of New York, dismissed a breach of contract suit over proceeds derived from the sale of rights in Bob Dylan’s album, Desire. (Note: “Supreme Court” is the designation given to the lowest level state courts in New York). Following its release in 1976, Desire topped the Billboard charts for five weeks straight.
The estate of Jacques Levy (“Levy”), a songwriter credited with co-writing seven of the nine songs on Desire, claimed that Dylan and Universal Music Group (“UMG”) owe the estate a portion of the proceeds derived from the December 2020 sale of Dylan’s complete copyright ownership in his entire catalog of work. Levy also directed Dylan’s tour titled the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975-76. Further, in 2019 a documentary by Martin Scorsese that chronicled Dylan’s 1975-76 tour failed to credit Levy as the director of the tour or co-writer of the songs in question from Desire. According to Levy’s estate, Dylan has developed a “pattern” of refusing to credit Levy where credit is due. To support that statement, Levy’s estate explained that they were not paid licensing fees for the Desire songs used in Scorsese’s film until the estate hired a lawyer and demanded payment.
Levy’s estate requested $1.75 million for the sale of the songs alone and an additional $2 million in the form of punitive damages. A court awards punitive damages to a prevailing party when the court finds that the opposing party deserves to be punished for especially malicious or intentionally harmful behavior. The terms of Dylan’s agreement were not publicly disclosed, but the New York Times reported that his catalog sold for over $300 million.
The Court dismissed the case after reviewing the 1975 agreement between Dylan and Levy regarding Levy’s compensation as co-writer of the songs. According to the Court, the 1975 agreement “unambiguously” restricted Levy’s compensation to a portion of the proceeds derived from licensing the right to perform and use the songs to third parties. The Court held that because the agreement did not provide Levy with “any portion of the proceeds from Dylan’s sale of his complete copyrights related to the [songs] that were explicitly vested in [Dylan] alone,” Levy’s estate was not entitled to compensation. The Court also refused to consider the evidence the estate introduced to support its arguments but explained that even if it had considered the evidence, the case was cut-and-dry.
Author’s Note: This appears to be an unjust result. Paying Levy a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Bob Dylan’s catalogue, when there is no dispute that Levy wrote no less than seven of those songs, would seem to be implied in the 1975 agreement. Parties often neglect to provide for every imaginable situation when they enter into contracts.
The estate is represented by Aaron Richard Golub.
Dylan and UMG are represented by Orin Snyder, Brian Ascher, Thomas Dupree Jr., and Alexandra Perloff-Giles of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
The case is Claudia C. Levy et al. v. Robert Zimmerman et al., case number unavailable, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County.
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