In dueling suits, Kanye West alleges contract 'servitude,' while music publisher claims deal breach

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Kanye West

Kanye West at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Music publisher EMI has sued Kanye West for alleged breach of contract after the rapper filed his own suit referring to the expansive deal as “servitude” and asserting that it could bar his retirement.

One of the disputes in the two lawsuits is whether California or New York law governs, report the Hollywood Reporter and USA Today. West says the contract he signed in 2003 is a contract for personal services under California law that can last no more than seven years.

West “has been working for EMI under the 2003 contract for over 15 years,” says his Jan. 25 suit, filed in California state court March 1. “EMI has unjustly earned millions of dollars by tethering Mr. West’s songwriting efforts for an unlawful term. He is entitled to his freedom.”

EMI counters in its March 7 lawsuit, filed in New York City federal court, that West’s contract specifies that New York law governs. The music publisher also says the agreement West signed is a contract to deliver ownership of his songs rather than a contract for personal services.

EMI says West has been paid “tens of millions of dollars,” yet he nonetheless made a “flagrant attempt to forum shop his way around the exclusive New York forum selection clause and New York choice of law clauses to which he voluntarily agreed to be bound.”

West breached the contract by filing suit in violation of the New York clause, the EMI suit says.

West gets into the details of his contract in his lawsuit, removed to federal court by EMI. He signed the initial three-year contract with a one-year option in 2003 and then signed several extensions, the last of which was in 2014.

Although the 2003 contract and the extensions covered set time periods, definitions in the contract could make it impossible for him to retire, West says.

The contract and the extensions required at least three “full new compositions” each contract year for the initial years, at least six compositions in later years, and at least seven during the last two one-year option periods.

But a contract year isn’t actually a year in length; it is the length of time it takes to deliver the compositions, the suit says. And the compositions also are strictly defined; they must be written solely by West on studio albums at least 35 minutes in length, released only by major labels paying specified royalties.

“As a result,” West’s lawsuit says, “EMI could purport to require Mr. West to continue to render exclusive services to EMI for years, perhaps even for the rest of his life.”

In addition, during the contract term, West is barred from retiring as a songwriter, recording artist or producer, or from taking an extended hiatus, his suit says.

The contract gives EMI rights not only to the “full new compositions” but also to any songs that West writes during the contract term, even to songs he doesn’t record, according to West’s lawsuit.

West’s suit seeks a declaration that he is entitled to ownership of his compositions after 2010, when seven years expired, and revenue attributable to those songs, at least for the four years before he filed suit.

EMI is represented by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, while West is represented by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

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