Rock Stars Fight Depositions in Legal Dispute Spanning Decades of Music History

Keith Richards, David Byrne and Michael Stipe are among the musicians who have been dragged into a case over old concert recordings.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, is a nice visit, but for music aficionados looking to explore the business side of rock history, a trip to a New York federal courtroom might be more educational. There, some legends including Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Talking Heads’ David Byrne, The Who’s Pete Townshend and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe have been popping up in recent months in the middle of massive copyright fight against a website boasting an impressive array of live recordings.

In 2015, the National Music Publishers’ Association led its members to file suit against William Sagan, who runs Wolfgang’s Vault, boasting what The Wall Street Journal once called “the most important collection of rock memorabilia and recordings ever assembled,” valued in excess of $100 million.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Sagan’s attorneys at Winston & Strawn have attempted various tactics to battle claims that Wolfgang’s Vault lacks the requisite licenses to stream an estimated 2 billion recorded concert performances. One of the first endeavors by Sagan was counterclaiming for defamation based on statements in a press release announcing the lawsuit. That didn’t go well, but Sagan’s lawyers are now up to something even more provocative.

The defendant is now prying into old agreements in the music business and demanding depositions with the overall goal of poking holes in the claim that Wolfgang’s lacks copyright authority. One of the main theories Sagan’s side is pursuing is that if musicians retained copyright to their works at the time of performance and then agreed to a recording of their concerts, the musicians made an implied license for later use of the recordings. Sagan is also exploring issues ranging from possibly faulty copyright registrations to a lack of protest among the artists over the years to support affirmative defenses as well as limit damages in a case potentially worth hundreds of millions…