A potential precedent-setting ruling that could have widespread ramifications for artists and streaming platforms was announced on Tuesday. Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet, has officially won his legal battle with his former label Domino over owed royalties.
As a part of the settlement, Domino has agreed to pay roughly $70,000 in owed royalties dating back to 2001 when he first signed a contract with the label as well as all of his legal costs incurred during the case. The agreed upon amount reflects the 50% royalty rate Hebden believed he should have a been owed rather than the 18% that rate that Domino (like a lot of other labels) was paying. Hebden also asked that Domino offer an option for him to buy back ownership of his back catalog but the label ultimately declined to do so.
Reacting to the news, Hebden tweeted, “It has been a difficult and stressful experience to work my way through this court case and I’m so glad we got this positive result, but I feel hugely relieved that the process is over. Hopefully I’ve opened up a constructive dialogue and maybe prompted others to push for a fairer deal on historical contracts, written at a time when the music industry operated entirely differently. I really hope that my own course of action encourages anyone who might feel intimidated by challenging a record label with substantial means. Unlike Domino, I didn’t work with a big law firm and luckily the case took place at the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court court (where legal costs are capped) so I was able to stand my ground.”
Hebden elected to take the offer put forth by Domino as part of a 36-part settlement, preventing the case from going to court. According to Hebden's legal advisor, Aneesh Patel, “Whilst it’s not the same as a judgement, it’s as close as he’d get to a public result. Importantly for Kieran, it was not a confidential settlement, meaning he could share the result with others.”
As an added wrinkle to the mix, Domino removed Four Tet's music from streaming services during the legal battle, claiming that they were “disheartened to have to take these steps,” but had been “advised to do so as a necessary consequence of Kieran’s litigation.” The music has since been returned to the various platforms thankfully.
The dispute with Domino over royalties dates back to December 2020 when Hebden first filed the lawsuit. When Hebden signed a contract with Domino in 2001, streaming and digital downloads weren't as ubiquitous as they are now. Apple's iTunes store was still in its infancy at the time and Spotify wouldn't even exist until several years later, but the real discrepancy between the two came down to categorization of formats. Domino claimed that Hebden was only owed 75% of the 18% royalty rate that was paid out for CD and vinyl sales, but paid him the full amount as a courtesy. Hebden argued that the streams and downloads fell under the "flat fee" and international licensing provisions under the same contract which is how he arrived at the 50% figure.
The crux of the case, and why it may end up having a much broader impact on artists apart from Hebden, is whether or not digital formats, like streams, count as sales in a legal sense. The status of streaming royalties has long been a point of contention, with artists like Eminem and Enrique Iglesias having filed similar lawsuits over royalties to varying degrees of success in the past decade. Its no secret that streaming pay-outs from the major platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and such are paltry for a majority of artists and only account for a fraction of their income, so any ruling that advocates for a larger share of the profits is a promising development.
The only potential snafu that might arise is that the case was settled out of court meaning that the outcome will likely not have any legally binding precedent on future cases (and even if it did, it most likely would only apply in UK courts) but it is a promising sign that judicial attitudes and perspective on the topic might be changing which could ultimately benefit artists in the long run.
Photo via Getty/ Burak Cingi/ Redferns
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