Kanye West Is at Crossroads in Battle to Win Freedom From Publishing Contract

After months of negotiation on a possible settlement, EMI teases an injunction while West aims to cut down the publisher's own lawsuit in New York.
Tyler Golden/Netflix

What does the future hold for Kanye West? The iconic and controversial hip-hop artist is now attempting to secure his freedom in the face of EMI's efforts, which — in the words of his court papers filed on Thursday — could "tie him to an exclusive publishing agreement that could last for years, if not his entire life." And the next few months could be a turning point. There is a possibility on one hand that West scores a renegotiated deal, while on the other he could be forced into some sort of career limbo.

To quickly recap the background here, West filed suit in January against EMI in California with the contention that he's been "laboring" for the publisher since 2003, when he signed a "lopsided" contract during the recording of College Dropout. To escape a contract that explicitly forbids him from retiring as a songwriter, recording artist or producer, West argues that the repeatedly re-upped contract is illegal under California Labor Code section 2855, which limits personal service contracts to no more than seven years.

EMI has filed its own lawsuit against West. Hoping to adjudicate the dispute in New York, the publisher alleges that West has breached his deal, specifically the clause in his contract that provides New York with the exclusive jurisdiction to handle this type of controversy.

What's happened since the initial fireworks is a lot of backroom negotiating.

The two sides initially requested postponement of filing deadlines with word of settlement talk. In June, the attorneys in the case reported to the judge that they were "optimistic" about reaching resolution with proposals exchanged and additional time needed to track down information about West's fulfillment of contractual duties.

West and EMI have not yet come to a deal, however, and on Thursday the case began moving again. 

In a letter to the judge outlining a new case management plan, EMI raised the possibility that it may file a motion for a preliminary injunction. The publisher didn't detail what such a demand would look like. It may be as modest as an attempt to stop him from prosecuting his California lawsuit; it could also aim to stop him from recording new music.

In the meantime, West has filed a motion to dismiss EMI's complaint.

In a nutshell, the dispute has become a consequential one, where EMI argues that West can't evade the New York forum clause of his contract, while West argues EMI can't do a run around California law and public policy frowning on contractual servitude. If the two sides can't figure out a settlement, the dispute figures to be a touchstone, not just for West but for other artists, publishers and studios as well.

"Even if Mr. West’s publishing contracts with EMI were not unfair (they are), even if their terms valued Mr. West’s contributions in line with the enormous global success he has achieved (they do not), and even if EMI had not underpaid Mr. West what they owe him (they have), he would be entitled to his freedom," states West's motion to dismiss (read here). "EMI now asks this Court to ratify EMI’s unlawful conduct by adjudicating a matter over which the Court lacks jurisdiction to circumvent the very policy protections EMI has violated and keep Mr. West bound to the contract indefinitely."