Jay Z Faces Sound Engineer's Bold Claim Over Song Rights

A New York judge is being asked to make a consequential copyright ruling that could credit co-ownership to a song collaborator.
Invision for Parkwood Entertainment
Jay Z

After being accused by Jay Z of stealing master recordings of seminal work, Chauncey Mahan has responded with a provocative lawsuit against the hip-hop star and Roc Nation.

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Although the dispute was born in somewhat of a bizarre fashion, the litigation has the potential of developing into something of consequence to the music industry. Mahan is a sound engineer who takes credit for collaborating with chart-topping recording artists such as Whitney Houston, Notorious B.I.G., R Kelly and Missy Elliot. He has worked in the industry for decades and says in his lawsuit that his technical expertise and "ear" for what makes certain sound recordings popular is what led Jay Z to tap him in 1999 for recording sessions that would result in Vol 3… The Life and Times of S. Carter.

That album was a commercial and critical success, featuring tracks like "Big Pimpin," "Do it Again," and "Things That You Do." It was followed up by other Roc-A-Fella albums that Mahan says he played a part in creating.

For about 15 years, the masters, outtakes, and other unpublished material remained on Mahan's computer hard drive. The sound engineer considered himself to be the custodian, and asserts that Def Jam and UMG record label execs who were administering the Roc-A-Fella imprint had knowledge of his possession.

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But a few months ago, news reports began circulating about an alleged extortion on the part of Mahan.

As the sound engineer tells the story in his lawsuit, Jay Z and Roc Nation orchestrated a "sting operation" this past April at a commercial storage facility in Los Angeles, and after cataloging an inventory of copyrighted materials, Jay Z's reps called the Los Angeles Police Department to seize Mahan's chattel and accuse him of being in possession of stolen property. Jay Z is then said to have filed three separate criminal complaints Mahan. The engineer wasn't arrested, though, and reportedly the LAPD's criminal investigation has closed.

That hasn't settled the matter, though, because Mahan has now retained an attorney named James Freeman, whose recent notable chart-topping releases included a 219-page, $500 million lawsuit against Lionsgate Entertainment for allegedly going too far with Twilight rights and a 429-page, $250 million lawsuit against producers of American Idol for alleged discrimination against former singing contestants. Freeman has a knack for larding complaints with arguable irrelevancies, mixing criminal and civil law, and making bold but difficult claims.

Here, in Mahan's 84-page complaint, beyond such side tales as the birth of hip-hop from DJ Kool Herc to Afrika Bambaataa, lies the challenging insistence that Mahan, as a creative sound engineer, should be considered at very least to be a joint author of Jay Z songs.

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To make such a claim stick, Mahan (via Freeman) tries to show two things.

First, Mahan attempts to play up his integral role in the authorship of the works.

For 45 songs, Mahan states that he "was in charge of setting up or scheduling the recording sessions and studio time, tracking the prototype beat of the so-called 'producer,' pre-mixing the beat, sample editing, choosing the recording methodology and setting up the microphones, vocal recording, vocal coaching, vocal compositing, multi-track mixing, song arranging, pitch shifting, additional editing, and pre-mastering a final version through use of a digital audio workstation such as Pro Tools."

"There were other joint collaborators in the process, of course," the lawsuit notes, "but they often came and went quickly. Petitioner’s role was to be physically present in the studio for the entire process..."'

The focus on Mahan's purported role could throw the judge towards an analysis of originality in the collaborative realm of song creation. If he's lucky, he might get the treatment afforded Innocence of Muslims actress Cindy Lee Garcia, whom a 9th Circuit judge last February declared could assert a copyright interest in her own performance.

But such discussion would go hand-in-hand with another aspect of the case.

To make the lawsuit fly, Mahan also attempts to show why his relationship with Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella shouldn't mean that the defendants are sole owners of the recording by way of him being under their employ. The plaintiff says that Jay Z didn't consider him to be his personal employee nor the corporate employee of the label. "To the contrary, Mr. Carter knew that Mr. Mahan was an independent contractor or professional freelancer," says the lawsuit.

As for copyright registrations, the lawsuit argues they are "defective... for claiming to be 'employer-for-hire' where no employment relationship existed."

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This is a fairly significant issue in the music industry as controversial things like copyright termination rights continue to loom. In a case involving rights to Marvel superheroes, the Supreme Court has recently been asked to address the circumstances by which contributed materials should be considered as a "work made for hire." If Mahan prevails on the claim that he is an independent contractor whose work wasn't supervised and controlled sufficiently as to be deemed to be authored by those who hired him, it would open up claims from many other collaborators in the music business.

Of course, to get that far, the judge is probably going to need to focus on what's most relevant and trim the excess from Mahan's overstuffed lawsuit that includes such dubious propositions like "a corporate entity cannot be a joint author with another natural human being under the Copyright Act of 1976." But with legal questions swirling over joint works and works-made-for-hire, this lawsuit of strange origins is worth following.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner