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A Guide to Music Industry Disputes in NYC

Legal disputes are not uncommon in the music industry and NYC, as one of North America’s prime art capitals, is bound to see its share of disputes. Legal disputes are among the most common issues for musicians, record labels, entertainment venues, and anyone working in the music industry.

Typical legal issues might include:

  • Agreement breaches or termination
  • Artist and manager disputes
  • Distribution agreements
  • Group breakups
  • Merchandising
  • Ownership disputes
  • Production agreements
  • Publishing
  • Touring
  • Trademark and copyright infringement

Typical Music Industry Contracts

There are a variety of contracts used in the music industry and may be the basis for legal disputes. Some of the more common agreements include:

Booking agreements

These detail event information when musicians are hired to perform. These contracts protect both the musician and the organizer, so everyone knows their obligations. These agreements also specify what will happen if the contract is violated and any possible alternatives if the event is canceled.

Music Commissions

This agreement contracts a musician to create a custom composition or song or an arrangement. It will include fees, deadlines, song length, and usually an agreement for dispute resolution.

Exclusive Rights agreements

An agreement that guarantees a specific work will not be sold to someone else.

Intellectual property license

If an artist has filed an intellectual property license, a musical composition cannot be used without compensation. Users must ask permission and this generally comes with a price tag.

Licensing agreements

This type of contract ensures that the owner of a musical composition is paid when the music is used. This also protects an artist from theft and affords legal recourse.

Record label contracts

Record companies sign contracts with musicians affording the company the rights to perform music. These stipulate the duration of the contract, the fee, and if they must record a certain number of records while the contract is valid. This type of agreement will also include compensation from merchandise and record sales as well as touring.

Sync License

Synchronization licenses are contracts stipulated between a song or music owner and someone wanting to use the music for a video. In this way, compositions that are copyrighted can be used with approval.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

Depending on the nature of the dispute, it’s probably a good idea. Entertainment attorneys are specialists in navigating music industry law and know music business ins and outs. As a professional musician, your interests will not be simply limited to performing and getting paid, but may include recording agreements, copyrights, intellectual properties, terminating management, and much more. This can be complicated, so an entertainment lawyer will work as an advocate for you in complicated contractual negotiations or dispute resolutions.

Making a Complaint

You or your attorney can file a complaint to sue whoever has wronged you in NY Civil court. The procedure will vary depending on if you have hired a lawyer or not. You will pay a fee, and the court will consequently issue the complaint and summons.

Summons must be served to the defendant or defendants indicted in the complaint. If the defendant responds, you will be notified and receive a court date. If the value of the complaint is less than $10,000, a complaint  can be filed in the small claims court.

Where to File

Plaintiffs or their lawyers will need to file a complaint in the county one of the parties resides. If neither party resides in NYC, the suit can still be filed if either party works or does business in NYC. If neither party works nor does business in the city, the suit can be filed where the cause of the suit took place.

Informing or Serving a Defendant

For those without a lawyer, you may request a summons form online, or apply for a Pro Se Summons at the civil court. You submit the application to the court clerk with a fee, and the clerk will issue the summons with the complaint along with an index number. You, as the plaintiff, must then have the summons served.

Serving a Summons

Anyone of legal age that is not involved in the action can serve a complaint and summons. You can also hire a Process server to serve the summons to the defendant. Serving can be done personally or with substituted delivery on any day except Sunday. If a third person delivers the summons, they must complete an affidavit of service declaring that the summons was served.

If these methods are not achievable, a summons can be delivered by what is known as a “Conspicuous Place“ delivery or “nail and mail”. This requires that the summons be attached to the door of the defendant’s residence or place of business (with tape) inside an envelope that has “Personal and confidential” written on the outside and a copy must also be mailed to the defendant within 20 days of placing the complaint on the door.

If you are serving a corporation like a recording label, the summons must be served to a manager or officer of the company.

Generally, defendants have twenty days to respond after being served unless outside of NYC in which case it would be 30 days. In the event of substituted or conspicuous serving, the responding time begins when the affidavit of service is presented to the court.

When a Defendant Doesn’t Respond

If the defendant in your complaint does not respond, you need to mail another copy to the defendant before the court will set a trial date. You will need to complete the affidavit of service declaring that the summons was mailed a second time and bring it with you to the hearing.

The Trial

Should an answer to your complaint be filed, a court date will be set and the court will mail you a notification of when to appear.

If, after three weeks from the defendant’s expiration date, you still have not received an answer, you can petition for an inquest if you have already sent the second summons.


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