If you follow internationally acclaimed music star Kanye West, you might expect a bit of drama in his business dealings. In late January, he sued his music publisher, EMI, claiming that it had manipulated him into an extended period of personal servitude in violation of California law. Now, EMI has responded with its own lawsuit claiming that West has breached his contract.
In his lawsuit, West characterizes his contract with EMI as one of “personal service.” In California, personal services contracts can’t be written for more than seven years and can’t be extended without extending the servant a “moment of freedom” to consider whether to continue in the employment.
It seems quite unlikely that a court would agree with West’s characterization. Personal services contracts are more likely to be focused on providing service to an individual rather than on providing services that feel highly personal to the provider. Moreover, the personal services contract seems to be one of employment, while West’s music publishing contract is one of mutual contractual obligations.
If West were correct in considering his music publishing contract as one for personal services, however, he might be right that, under California law, it couldn’t last for longer than seven years without a break. If that were the case, West’s contract would have ended in October 2010.
Assuming for the moment that the contract did end in October 2010, West claims that he should receive full ownership of and all royalties for songs written or produced after that time.
EMI fires back with a lawsuit in New York
EMI was firm in its opinion that this is not a personal services contract. “The purpose of the 2003 agreement is not the furnishing of personal services, but rather the allocation of rights in musical compositions in exchange for royalty payments,” it says in its complaint.
Furthermore, it points out that the contract gives it no right to “direct, supervise or manage” West’s songwriting or recording.
“In short, West is an independent contractor over whom EMI exercises no control whatsoever,” reads the complaint.
EMI’s suit doesn’t depend on whether the contract is one for personal services, however. It relies on a much more concrete factor: a term in the contract itself that requires all disputes to be resolved under New York law. And New York law doesn’t contain the same rules about personal services contracts as California.
EMI further points out that, after the 2003 agreement was signed, West freely agreed to seven modifications and extensions, for which he received advance payments. The most recent modification took place in 2014.