Kesha v. Sony – Cautionary Contract Tale

Microphone by Photo Cindy from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Microphone by Photo Cindy from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, a New York Court refused to nullify the contract between recording artist Kesha and Sony, despite Kesha’s allegations that she was drugged and raped in 2006 by her producer, Luke Gottwald (a.k.a. Dr. Luke). Gottwald has not been charged with this crime. Kesha admitted she’s afraid of Gottwald, but she said if she doesn’t work with him (even though Sony offered to give her another producer), she’s worried Sony won’t promote her music properly. If everything Kesha said is true, she is trapped in a situation where she has to risk her personal safety for professional success.

Why Sony Won
The reason Sony won this case appears to be basic contract law – the verbiage of the contract wouldn’t allow for the change. When it comes to creating a contract, it’s a relatively low bar to clear to have a legally binding contract. And if the parties want to change the provisions later, they may only be able to do so under limited circumstances, such as by mutual agreement. If the contract is valid and the other side is not open to making changes, you’re stuck with the verbiage and the commitments of the original agreement. I suspect that’s what happened in this situation; Kesha signed 6-album deal, and her allegations that her producer raped her isn’t sufficient to force Sony to change the terms or release her from the contract entirely.

Personally, I believe Kesha. It’s rare for a person to lie about being sexually assaulted. However, the law doesn’t have this luxury. The court can only make decisions based on what the parties can prove, so without a conviction or a confession, the court can’t determine if her allegations is sufficient to release her from this contract.

Ke$ha by Becky Sullivan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Ke$ha by Becky Sullivan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Turn Back the Clock
Given that hindsight is 20/20, what might Kesha have done differently when negotiating her contract with Sony? I am not sure it was wise for either party to commit themselves to a 6-album deal. Perhaps it would have been better for the artist to only commit to 2 albums and then renegotiate. Given Kesha’s young age when she signed with Sony, perhaps she, and other young artists, should have provisions geared towards their personal safety such as cameras that record all meetings and security or at least a personal representative all times that she’s working as well as provisions that address physical and emotional abuse. I also wonder if it wouldn’t have been prudent for both sides to have a provision that required regular drug testing to help prevent artists from getting into trouble and from being taken advantage of by people who should be protecting them.

What Could Kesha do Now?
Since a Kesha appears to be legally obligated to work with Sony and her alleged rapist, what should she do now to protect herself? Her safety should be the top priority. In regards to Gottwald, Kesha should never be alone with him. She should have security at her side at all times when he’s present. Gottwald should not be permitted to be within 10 feet of her, be able to contact her directly by phone or using any electronic means, or for any reason except as professionally necessary. I’m also not opposed to Kesha being legally armed (pepper spray, stun gun, etc.) if that makes her feel safer for the duration of her contract.

Contracts are a beautiful thing when they are written properly. However, we can see from this case how it can be a disaster when parties don’t plan for the worst-case scenarios. (I agree that it is an incredibly sad that artists have to consider the possibility that they will be physically harmed by their business partners, but this case shows that it is something that should be discussed at the negotiation table.) If you have a question about writing effective contracts, please contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

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