Who Owns the Rights to the unknown Dylan Songs?

As we know, Bob Dylan has sold the rights to his entire song catalog to Universal Music Group (UMG).

It happened at the end of last year and the contract was announced as one of Universal’s largest in history, and it ensured that the company can receive all potential revenue from the veteran’s songs.

Apparently the contract contained both Dylan’s current songwriter earnings and his ownership of each song’s copyright.

And the publicity surrounding the deal talked of “About 600 tracks from a six-decade career” being acquired by Universal.

The deal’s terms were not revealed, but the estimated amount was set to be between $200 million and $450  million, a great amount for any  Highroller Casino player.

But here’s the thing.  What about the songs we’ve been discovering since we first started this blog back in 2008?   Some of these don’t seem to have any publisher assignment at all.

And what about the songs like “I once knew a man” which suddenly turned up in 1984, got one performance and was never heard again and which is about to be discussed yet again in the next episode of “All Directions at Once”.  A song that isn’t listed in the catalogues or lists of recordings, except on this site.  A song which, if it was written by someone else, no one can find in any recording or any mention of anywhere.  A song which is not (as some would have it) a throw-away 12 bar blues, but a song with a rhythmic content that has never been found anywhere else.

A song which if not written by Dylan, then by whom?

So what if someone picks up on “I once knew a man” and plays it, and puts it on an album.  Who gets the royalties from that?   We know that all future earnings from Dylan’s massive catalog of songs will now go to Universal Music. The company will receive a royalties payment any time “Just Like A Woman” or “Make You Feel My Love” is played on the radio, licensed to a film, or covered by another artist. They’ll also have a say on which films or advertisements use Dylan’s music in the future.

But what about  the songs we have found and for which readers of this site have created their own music?  Those songs that turn up in our Showcase.  Songs where Bob wrote the lyrics but for which the music is composed by members of the Elite Untold Squad.

Dylan accepted a lump sum payment estimated to be worth between $200 million and $450 million (£150 million to £340 million). The purchase price was not disclosed by either Universal or Dylan’s team, but the upper end of those figures is reasonable.

What if someone takes a song written by Bob Dylan and with new music added by an Untolder.  Does Universal pay up?

What if a band takes that oh so rough recording of “I once knew a man” and it starts being played.  Who gets those royalties?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the selling of song catalogs has become a booming industry, with investors seeing music as a relatively stable commodity in an otherwise volatile market. Blondie, Barry Manilow, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain’s estates have all sold the rights to their songs in recent years.

So Bob is following in the footsteps of Bruce Springsteen, Kendrick Lamar, Billie Eilish, and Post Malone.

Outside of the United States, Sony/ATV Music Publishing says it will continue to manage Dylan’s catalog until their contract expires in a few years. Sony Music owns the rights to his recordings as well.

But who represents those of us who gave life to the previously unfinished songs, which even now might be playing on the speakers of some artist somewhere, looking for a new sound, looking for a new song?

When UMG CEO Sir Lucian Grainge announced the offer, he said it was with “enormous pride” that he welcomed Dylan to the family.  The Hipgnosis SongsFund, based in London, has invested more than $1 billion (£750 million) on Rihanna, Beyonce, and Justin Timberlake hits, with the Church of England among the investors sharing royalties.

“It’s no secret that the art of songwriting is the fundamental key to all great music, nor is it a secret that Bob is one of the very greatest practitioners of that art,” said Lucian.  “Brilliant and moving, inspiring and beautiful, insightful and provocative, his songs are timeless – whether they were written more than half a century ago or yesterday.”

He added that it was “no exaggeration to say that his vast body of work has captured the love and admiration of billions of people all around the world.   I have no doubt that decades, even centuries from now, the words and music of Bob Dylan will continue to be sung and played- and cherished -everywhere.”

To which the valiant songwriters of Untold added, “And don’t forget the little people.”

In case you missed it:

  • Dylan in Depth – songs analysed in more depth than you might have imagined.

If you’d like to write for Untold Dylan, please email Tony@schools.co.uk

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2 Responses to Who Owns the Rights to the unknown Dylan Songs?

  1. Hi Tony!
    As some one who has now together with my songwriting partner created 6 songs from part written unknown Dylan lyrics published here, and have a number of further lyrics we will create songs from in the pipeline, I wish an answer to your question could be found.
    When I posted the question on a social media site, I was contacted by an artist heavily involved in a similar project, The New Basement Tapes, who suggested that I try to contact Dylan’s team to seek permission to use the lyrics.
    I personally have written to Columbia Records and to Sony Records and to Sony Publishing in New York as well to Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to Dylan’s lawyer and to Dylan himself, and that was the only communication I got a response to, which was a negative ‘not known at this address’, even though my letter had been opened!
    Perhaps the answer is that in spite of the fact that in law, once the lyrics are written down on paper they are copyrighted to the creator, because the lyrics were never mechanically copyrighted and catalogued in the world that artists like Dylan live, no monetary gain or little monetary gain can be made from them because they were not assigned to a publisher and they are from such an early period of writing that the artist no longer identifies with those lyrics, then they ignore any inquiry about them?
    The problem for someone like us and others who have created songs from these part finished Dylan lyrics, is that what if we release them, as artists we are obliged to show all writer’s credits and apportion a percentage of the Royalties to them, what percentage do you assign to Bob Dylan and what if, as soon as the song is released we are served with a court sermons by Dylan’s lawyers or a cease and desist order?
    I believe that I have done everything within my power to seek permission to use these lyrics but my application has been ignored, so should I go ahead and release the songs that we have written from Dylan’s part written lyrics and will the fact that I have made all efforts possible to seek permission nullify any subsequent legal proceedings that might ensue if I release the songs?
    Can anyone provide an answer?
    Thank you, Paul

  2. Marty Katz says:

    I do not pretend to know the answer to your question, however if there is any money involved, be prepared to hear from the attorneys! I was involved with some local amateur performers and we did a monthly open mic at a small restaurant. There was no money involved for the performers and just a small amount of extra business for the restaurant itself. Regardless, the lawyers representing the major publishing companies demanded an exorbitant licensing fee to continue and we had to stop playing.

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