March 3rd, 2021 is an important anniversary in the world of Dwight Yoakam and country music. It marks 35 years since Dwight Yoakam’s debut album Guitars, Cadillacs Etc., Etc. was released by Warner Bros. Records, setting the Kentucky native and Bakersfield-inspired singer and songwriter on the path to superstardom.
But unless you have a physical copy, you won’t be able to celebrate by taking a spin through the landmark album. Amid a continuing lawsuit between Dwight Yoakam and his previous label, the entire album has been pulled from most music streaming and download services. This is after two songs from the album—“Honky Tonk Man” and “Miner’s Prayer,” had disappeared in February.
Dwight Yoakam is suing the Warner Music Group for failing to return the copyrights to his songs from the album per Section 203 of the Copyright Act. This is a much-argued provision of United States Copyright law originally enacted in the Copyright Act of 1976 that states that after 35 years, original authors can cancel the copyright grants signed away to others, and reclaim them for themselves. “[They] have profited off of Mr. Yoakam’s artistry for decades and yet now refuses him his basic right of copyright recapture granted under the Copyright Act,” the lawsuit states.
According to the case filed in the United States District Court of Central California on February 8th (see in full), Dwight Yoakam first notified Warner Music of his intentions to regain his copyrights back in February of 2019, and sent the company termination notices for the copyrights. In December of 2020, Yoakam then submitted his own copyright notices to be officially recorded with the United States Copyright Office.
Over the last two years, WMG has not responded to Yoakam’s requests to transfer ownership of the copyrights according to the lawsuit, and on January 29th, Yoakam sent a final notice to Warner threatening to sue if no action was taken. Hypothetically, Warner Music Group has now made the album unavailable so they do not earn any further profit from them that may come into dispute from the Yoakam lawsuit, though it might also be a negotiation tactic. Sales of new physical copies may also be halted. The reason “Miner’s Prayer” and “Honky Tonk Man” were pulled first was due to the songs being released as promotional singles ahead of the album.
The Dwight Yoakam lawsuit says the pulling of songs (and now the entire album) is causing injury to Yoakam due to lost revenue, and tying up the songs from other opportunities. “Defendants, by refusing to return Mr. Yoakam’s works while simultaneously refusing to exploit those same works, are essentially holding Mr. Yoakam’s copyrights hostage and paralyzing Mr. Yoakam from financially benefiting from his statutory right to terminate the transfer of his copyrights,” the lawsuit says.
The exercising of Section 203 of the Copyright Act as recordings reach the 35-year threshold has been a long-debated portion of copyright law, and the subject of numerous lawsuits. Multiple class action lawsuits are currently pending in New York affecting Sony and the Universal Music Group, brought by artists such as John Waite and Joe Ely.
The Dwight Yoakam lawsuit goes on to say that Warner subsidiary Rhino Records has proposed new deal terms to Yoakam for the copyrights, but will not acknowledge that ownership has officially reverted back to Yoakam.
“Mr. Yoakam is unable to earn royalties on these works, his fans are unable to listen to these works, and his streaming count, a quantifier that directly impacts the known value of a song, is detrimentally impacted,” the lawsuit states. “Even if Mr. Yoakam were able to reintroduce his works onto online streaming platforms, without Defendants’ cooperation, the stream count on each of the works would restart at zero, seriously harming the perceived value of the song.”
The lawsuit also asks for damages it says “well exceed one million dollars.” Furthermore, if the lawsuit is not resolved, selections from Dwight Yoakam’s second album Hillbilly Deluxe released in July of 1987 could start to be affected in the future as well.
Meanwhile, those who purchased physical copies of Guitars, Cadillacs Etc., Etc. and never sold them off are feeling pretty smart, while those who adopted streaming in full have nowhere to turn to hear landmark Dwight Yoakam songs like “Honky Tonk Man” and “It Won’t Hurt” on demand.