The news which came yesterday of the Belvoir St Theatre securing
permission from American musician Taylor Swift to use her smash hit
song "Shake It Off" in the upcoming performance of
Seventeen was a paradigm of our times.
What's not to love about it? The idea of a group of 70 year
old actors boogieing down to one of the biggest songs of the
decade; the fact that a small(ish) Australian theatre company was
able to garner the attention of one of the worlds biggest pop-stars
via social media; the idea that after completely saturating the 0
to 69 year old market Swift has finally managed to tap into the
lucrative septuagenarian market and most meta of all: the fact that
her approval came via a tweet.
While most normal people's reaction to that tweet ranged
from "how sweet" to "that's awesome". My
sick, hardwired-for-legal-conundrums brain jumped straight to the
question of whether a simple tweet would constitute valid consent
(how do we know Swift wrote the tweet, surely there's some
underlying contract three inches thick to make this bona fide,
right?) and more importantly: as good an artist as Swift is, does
she actually own the rights to "Shake It Off" and have
the ability to unilaterally provide permission to use the
I undertook some preliminary legal research (i.e. looked it up
on Wikipedia) and discovered that the song has been credited to
three songwriters: Taylor Swift, Max Martin and Shellback
(presumably not his real name) and had been produced by Martin and
Shellback. In addition to those three there were an additional
three musicians and six technical contributors to the
Presuming that the additional performers had already assigned
their performers rights to Swift or her people, some more in-depth
research (i.e. typing my question into Google) revealed that
Swift's music is published by Sony/ATV, meaning that they would
more than likely have been the ones with the final say as to where,
when and how the song is exploited (again presuming that it's a
worldwide publication deal) – and therefore the Scrooges who
said no to the Belvoir in the first place.
That is, of course, assuming that Martin and Shellback have the
same publisher or have not retained their performance rights for
region. Although presumably with those production credits
they'd be doing pretty well out of their involvement to date
and not too concerned about the playing of their tune to a room
full of theatre-goers in inner-city Sydney.
All of which is a long-winded way to reach a conclusion that
music publishing is way more complicated than just writing a song
and getting people to listen to it and Taylor Swift is awesome.
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