Without exception, there’s nobody music companies would like to hear from less than Richard Busch. And he’s rather pleased about that fact.
An attorney specializing in copyright infringement, Busch — head of entertainment at Nashville-based King & Ballow — makes his living accusing people of stealing. Most famously, he accused Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke of thieving elements of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up for their smash “Blurred Lines”; the duo were forced to pay $5.3 million in damages to Gaye’s family in 2018. Many in the music industry say the “Blurred Lines” decision ushered in a trigger-happy era of plagiarism accusations, but Busch argues that the case actually did songwriters a favor.
“The opposite is true. It will incentivize songwriters to create original work and not rely on others,” Busch tells me. “No one wants to go through what Pharrell, Robin and the Gaye family had to go through: almost five years of litigation, literally, to get the matter resolved — and the money that was spent.” (Not an insignificant chunk of which, it would be remiss not to note, ended up in Richard Busch’s pocket.)
Busch and his clients have sued the likes of Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, Sony/ATV, BMG, and Kobalt, as well as dozens of individual artists and writers. And right now he’s knee-deep in two more controversial cases: one repping three producers against a Travis Scott Number One single, and another pitting punk band Yellowcard against the deceased rapper Juice WRLD.
It’s songwriters who get dragged through the mud the hardest in Busch’s cases, as Dallas-born writer and producer Steven Solomon will tell you. Solomon was a co-defendant in one of Busch’s standout suits, which alleged that British star James Arthur’s global 2016 hit “Say You Won’t Let Go” ripped off The Script’s “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved.” The case was settled in 2018, but not before Busch went for the jugular, pointing out that Arthur had been dropped by his record label for “erratic behavior,” including an incident involving homophobic comments during a 2013 rap battle.
Solomon continues to deny that any copyright infringement took place. When told that I was interviewing Richard Busch, he said: “Greedy attorneys have made a business out of preying on writers of hit songs, knowing those writers will likely have to settle regardless of the merits, just to avoid the time and cost of a lengthy defense. These types of opportunistic lawyers hail themselves as heroes of music copyright, but in reality, they are the aggressors and the true villains.”
Busch is refreshingly self-aware of this dual legacy; he jovially brings up something a former songwriter client would always say to him: “It’s funny that these songwriters are criticizing me — if it was their work, they’d be the first one suing.”
It’s likely no one would’ve known Busch’s name had it not been for a chance cab journey in New York 20 years ago. Fresh from winning a racketeering case in NYC, the young Busch shared a taxi with the husband of the copyright administrator at Bridgeport Music, a Michigan-based indie publisher representing a large library of songs recorded by funk musicians. Between them, says Busch, he and Bridgeport consequently mapped out a plan to sue “the entire rap music industry” via around 500 cases brought together within the now-famous Bridgeport Music vs. Dimension Films lawsuit of 2001. “We won every case we tried, and we settled the vast majority of them,” Busch recalls.
Musicology experts have called the consequences of the Bridgeport case “extremely chilling” for the use of samples in hip-hop, while Bridgeport has been labelled a “sample troll” in the media. But in Busch’s eyes, the victory represented justice. It gave him a taste for the thrill of David toppling Goliath.
Busch’s prominence in the music industry reached new heights in 2007 when he sued Universal Music Group on behalf of Eminem’s producers, FBT Productions. In a truly landmark case, Busch and his team argued that FBT were due a 50% slice of net receipts from iTunes sales, rather than the 12% to 20% royalty artists were accustomed to receiving. His key argument: downloads should be treated as a “license” (from which recording artists typically receive half the spoils) as opposed to a “sale.” After five years of legal wrangling, the two parties settled out of court — but not before FBT won a crucial decision in the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals and spawned similar lawsuits from artists against their record labels.
“It probably ended up costing record labels more than a billion dollars to get it all right,” says Busch with palpable pride. “They revised their contracts to address it. A lot was achieved.”
Since 2015, when he won the “Blurred Lines” case, Busch has tended to aim his crosshairs at individual superstars. In 2016, Busch represented two songwriters, Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard, who claimed Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” lifted from their own tune, “Amazing,” recorded by British X Factor winner Matt Cardle. The $20 million case was eventually settled, with Harrington and Leonard now credited as writers on Sheeran’s track, despite Sheeran’s lawyers complaining that Busch’s suit contained “a bevy of scandalous, offensive and insulting accusations… which serve no purpose other than to seek to embarrass defendants and tarnish their reputations.”
When I mention to Busch that many people believe he unfairly hurts creators in the music business, he counters that he represents “the underdog” and that “I only take cases where I believe my clients are right… and that the other side has done something wrong.” He adds: “Everyone should understand that we turn down 90% of cases that come to us. We only take on cases that we believe have significant merit.”
As you read this, Richard Busch is tackling two more high-profile songwriter lawsuits. In the first, he’s representing three producers (Olivier Bassil, Benjamin Lasnier and Lukas Benjamin Leth) who claim that their song “Cartier” was pinched for Travis Scott’s Number One hit “Highest In The Room.”
The second case is even more controversial: Busch is pressing ahead with a claim that Juice WRLD’s 2018 hit “Lucid Dreams” infringes the copyright of 2006 release “Holly Wood Died” by punk band Yellowcard. (This $15 million suit was filed before Juice WRLD’s death in December. It was recently paused while a decision was made on who will represent the young rapper’s estate in probate.)
Busch is also representing a publishing company that manages Eminem’s works (Eight Mile Style) in a copyright infringement case against Spotify (together with mechanical rights clearing house Harry Fox Agency). The attorney believes the action could have “enormous” repercussions for Daniel Ek’s company and the wider streaming business. Spotify doesn’t always having the finest reputation amongst pop composers these days, so the news that it’s getting sued has been cheered by some within the songwriting community. Yet others say that Busch — and the group of plagiarism-hungry lawyers he inspires — deserves the opposite of commendation.
Lucas Keller, founder of popular Los Angeles-based writer and producer management group Milk & Honey, tells me the “legal precedent in L.A courts is creating an uncertain future for creators who now no longer understand the guidelines of copyright law and what a true infringement is or is not.” Keller adds of Busch’s lawsuits: “I don’t like the fear it puts into the writing room for my clients. Whereas battles may be won in the short-term, I believe the creators and the songwriters will win this war in the end.” Songwriters, managers, and record-label execs note that it’s increasingly common to hire musicologists to vet recorded music before it goes out — just to avoid a costly, embarrassing lawsuit from Busch and his ilk.
But half a decade after “Blurred Lines,” the copyright tide may be turning. In March, Katy Perry, alongside her record label Capitol, successfully overturned a $2.8 million infringement verdict, which posited that Perry’s “Dark Horse” ripped off Christian rapper Flame’s “Joyful Noise.” That decision came just a week after a court ruled that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” did not infringe Spirit’s “Taurus.”
And then there’s Lizzo. After brothers Justin and Jeremiah Raisen slapped the Atlantic-signed star with plagiarism accusations in October pertaining to the lyrics of her hit “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo hit back — and hard. In a lawsuit designed to quash the brothers’ claims for good, Lizzo’s legal team wrote: “The Raisens did not write any part of the material in question; they did not come up with the idea of including the lyric in the unreleased demo; they did not help Lizzo decide how to sing the lyric in the unreleased demo; and they do not co-own that work.”
Busch has not been involved in any of these counter-cases, but the forcefulness within them suggests that, after his extraordinarily successful run of sandbagging songwriters with lawsuits, the music industry might now be determined to fight back with equal aggression. Has the time come for Richard Busch to live and let live?
“Live and let live, that’s a very interesting way to put it,” he replies. “Older [people] like the Gaye family, for example, rely on Marvin’s royalties to live. And when someone, in their mind, takes their work and makes millions and millions of dollars off of it without compensating them, that’s the flip side of the story. If you’re taking away from the royalties that people actually live on, if you’re ripping off their work and not compensating them — that’s not right, either.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.