Artists and their labels are two inseparable entities; having mutually beneficial relationships, upholding the principle of mutualism.

The Korean drama “Record of Youth” (2020) starring Park Bo-gum depicted the life of an actor who is mistreated by his label, making him an easy target for the media.

The drama reflected only a small part of many things that transpire between an artist and their label, considering that such a relationship is too vague for the public as it happens behind the scenes.

Sometimes, though, this relationship surfaces and is put under scrutiny by many, both fans and passersby–i.e. when a scandal or a problem with a contract breaks out.

Learning from the stories of K-pop idols who leave their label

Back in 2009, a major instance shook the K-pop industry: three members of TVXQ–Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu–sued their label SM Entertainment to annul their exclusive contracts, citing mistreatment.

Afterwards, the three members formed a new group called JYJ. Regrettably, JYJ was banned from appearing on music shows. TV station KBS even openly said that it will not broadcast artists who are embroiled in a legal tangle.

Junsu said he couldn’t appear on TV because he was on the “cultural blacklist”.

What happened to JYJ then precipitated the “JYJ Law”, a proposed amendment to Korea’s broadcasting act preventing third parties from blacklisting certain individuals or groups from appearing on television. The law was passed by the National Assembly in 2015.

Unlike JYJ’s TV ban, the group B2ST lost their rights to use their trademarked group name after leaving CUBE Entertainment in 2016 because the trademark belonged to CUBE.

Despite having used the name for around seven years, the five members of B2ST–Gikwang, Doojoon, Yoseob, Dongwoon and Junhyung–had to forfeit it and make their second debut under their independent agency, Around Us Entertainment, as HIGHLIGHT.

In another development, all members of SHINee–Key, Onew, Minho and Taemin–had renewed their contracts with SM Entertainment for the third time.

Many fans felt touched, but there were some who disagreed with this decision. Key then made a statement that they did this to be able to stay together. He said, “Even if we leave, we’ll leave together.”

Does it mean that they will lose the right to use the name SHINee if they leave SM?

Taylor Swift released “Taylor’s Version” to reclaim her songs

Let’s move to the comparably exciting Western pop music scene. Especially with the presence of “Taylor’s Version”, where Taylor Swift re-recorded and re-released her old albums.

Who would have known that this strategy makes her even more famous? Almost all her fans are waiting for her other albums to be released in “Taylor’s Version”. But, why did Taylor Swift do this?

When her contract ended with Big Machine Records in 2018 and she joined Universal’s Republic Records, Big Machine still owned the master (or the original recording) of her first six albums.

Some 17 months after Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings LLC acquired Big Machine Label Group and all of its recorded music assets, he sold all the master rights to Swift’s first six albums for almost $450 million (around Rp6.9 trillion).

In 2021, Swift released “Taylor’s Version” to reclaim her rights to the songs she wrote. To date, she has released four “Taylor’s Versions”: “Fearless”, “Red”, “Speak Now” and “1989”.

Unsurprisingly, the success of this re-release made record labels feel slightly “threatened”. Citing The Independent, several top music attorneys said major record labels have changed their contracts for new signees.

In standard contracts, artists are typically required to wait for five to seven years after the release date of the original music, or two years after their contract expires, to re-record their music.

However, the new contracts stipulate that the artist must wait for 10-30 years to re-record their music after departing their labels.

Hence, many called the clauses in the new contracts the “Taylor’s Version” effect.

If an artist parts ways with their label, who has the rights to the brand?

The basic concept of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) always follows its owner. The unique characteristic of IPR is that the rights to a registered trademark can be transferred or assigned to whomever the owner intended–on agreed terms and conditions.

For example, in copyrights, the inventor can transfer their economic rights to a third party through an agreement for a certain period of time, allowing the third party to enjoy the economic benefits from the creation.

Apart from being able to be transferred, IPR can also be jointly owned by more than one person, in what is known as collective rights. However, whether the rights are owned by one or multiple individuals, it must be clearly stated in the agreement–in order to protect the rights of each individual.

An example is when Rieka Roslan, a former member of The Groove, sent a letter requesting a ban on the band from performing the songs she wrote. This is because Rieka and The Groove are no longer under the same label. Rieka said she did this to get the exclusive rights to the songs she wrote.

The ban was sent to Wahana Musik Indonesia (WMI), the collective management organisation that manages the IPR of its members. Shortly after, Rieka attended an audience regarding royalties at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights along with other musicians, such as Padi’s Piyu and Ahmad Dhani.  

In the entertainment industry, the concept of IPR protection generally becomes more complex and unique because the rights can be owned by multiple individuals.

So, to answer the question of who has the rights to the brand when the collaboration between a label and an artist ends, we have to look at the contract.

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