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Bob Dylan wins lawsuit against Jacques Levy's estate

The estate for the late Jacques Levy had claimed ownership over 35 per cent of the songs the two wrote together on 'Desire'

Bob Dylan performs at The Hop Festival in Kent in 2012. Photo via Reuters
Bob Dylan performs at The Hop Festival in Kent in 2012. Photo via Reuters

American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won a judgment in the lawsuit filed by the estate for late songwriter Jacques Levy in January, which had claimed ownership over 35 per cent of the songs Levy and Dylan wrote together on the Desire album.

According to Variety, on Friday, Dylan's attorney, Orin Snyder, said in a statement, "We're pleased with today's decision. As we said when the case was filed, this lawsuit was a sad attempt to profit off the recent catalogue sale. We're glad it's now over."

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The suit was filed by Levy's widow, Claudia Levy, in January after Dylan sold his publishing catalogue to Universal Music Publishing Group in December, contending that the estate should receive a portion of Dylan's overall haul from the reported USD 300 million sales, commensurate with the 10 songs in the catalogue that Jacques Levy had a hand in.

Judge Barry Ostrager of the Supreme Court of New York agreed with Dylan and UMG's lawyers that the agreement drafted between Dylan and Levy in 1975 made it clear that he was not a participant in ownership of the material, and that his profit participation would consist of a share of songwriting royalties.

The court also noted that Levy's estate has continued to receive royalties from the co-written songs, before and after Dylan's catalogue sale, set at 35 per cent, with no ownership conferred.

In his 18-page decision, Ostrager wrote, "Upon review of the 1975 Agreement and the competing arguments, the Court finds the Agreement is clear and unambiguous on its face when read as a whole."

He further continued, "For the reasons explained here, the Court determines that the plain meaning of the 1975 Agreement is that the Dylan Defendants owned all copyrights to the Compositions, as well as the absolute right to sell the Compositions and all associated rights, subject only to plaintiffs' right to receive the compensation specified in the 1975 Agreement, which does not include any portion of the proceeds from Dylan's sale of his own rights to the Universal Defendants."

Ostrager quoted from the agreement, which described Levy as an "employee-for-hire", a lyricist, noting that the word "employee" was used for Levy "approximately 84 times" in the contract.

As reported in January, the Levy estate's lawyers asked for USD 1.75 million as their fair share of the catalogue sale, plus USD 2 million in punitive damages.

They arrived at the USD 1.75 million figure by looking at the reported USD 300 million sales of Dylan's catalogue to Universal and then breaking it down by the estimated 600 songs that were part of it, figuring what the share would be for the 10 that Levy co-wrote.

Levy died in 2004. His multi-levelled career included being a practising psychologist, avant-garde theatre director and playwright.

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He also was said to be instrumental in the creation and direction of Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, although the suit complained that he was never properly billed at the time and was unfairly not even mentioned in Martin Scorsese's 2019 documentary about the tour. The judge did not comment on that argument.

The estate's contention that Levy merited co-ownership had not been widely viewed as likely to prevail. Had it, it might have prompted a gold rush in which other top songwriters selling their publishing catalogues could have faced claims of co-ownership from former co-writers.

The Levy lawyers had contended that his agreement with Dylan was "atypical" and stood apart from similar publishing agreements.

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