Monday, February 23, 2009

Warranties and Indemnification Language in Entertainment and Intellectual Property Agreements

To build on my previous post, I thought I would write about warranties and indemnity language in entertainment and intellectual property agreements. Many of my clients do not understand the significance of the warranty and indemnity language that is inevitably placed in recording artist contracts, exclusive songwriter agreements, and the myriad of other intellectual property and entertainment agreements. Many more don't know that indemnity clauses creates a duty to pay any losses or damages of the other party based on the warranty language.

I always advise my clients and teach my students that such language is an effective means of risk management. Smart people and well run business entities enter contractual relationships with slight trepidation. They conduct risk assessments and balance those risks against the possible rewards of the relationship. As we have all heard before, such a balancing of risk and reward requires us to ask ourselves: does the reward outweigh the risk? This question, however, is too vague to be of any real use. As any attorney has experienced, the masterful debater can always convince themselves of the answer they emotionally want to reach.

The better question to ask oneself is: Am I able and willing to absorb the loss? You must look to both your emotional position and your resources. That is why your investment adviser makes you plan your retirement strategy by deciding your (emotional) willingness and (financial) ability to tolerate market fluctuations.

So what does this have to do with warranty and indemnification language? Warranty and indemnification language directly impacts each contracting parties’ answer to the question “am I able and willing to absorb the loss” of this transaction.

Let’s look at this from a record label’s point of view. If a record label is going to invest in a band, provide them with A&R services, pay them an advance, spend money producing and shipping their albums, they want to limit the level of risk in all the areas they have control. Since they can’t control with any degree of certainty what the consumers will purchase, they will focus on all the variables of risk they can control. Warranty language allows the record label to allocate the risk to the band for such things as copyright and trademark infringements.

From the Band’s perspective this can be uncharted water. Let’s say that you are a member (say the drummer) in the band. Your band is about to sign a recording artist contract with a major record label. You want to record some of the songs your lead singer brought with him from his previous band. The label is insisting that you provide them with a license to these songs and warrant that such songs are free and clear of any copyright claims. The label also wants language in the contract that if they get sued for infringement on these songs, the band will be required to pay the label’s attorney fees and pay any judgment.

If your lead singer co-wrote the songs with another person and then granted the copyright to those songs to a music publisher in an exclusive songwriter agreement, you and your band mates had no right to give the label a license to property to which none of you, not even your lead singer, properly owns. You could be on the hook for any possible copyright infringement claims brought by the music publisher against the label. Indeed, you could be liable even if you did not have knowledge of who owned the copyright to the songs.

Can you see now how your answer to the question “am I able and willing to absorb the loss” of entering into a contract is impacted by the warranty and indemnity language?

The trepidation I spoke of before should lead you to ask questions of your lead singer before agreeing to any such contractual language. I would also ask to see the copyright registration or look it up myself on the U.S. Copyright Office’s website. If you don’t do your research, you are answering the question “am I able and willing to absorb the loss” of this transaction without the necessary information. Without the proper information, you might as well not even ask yourself the question in the first place.