How the Blaq Diamond Court Ruling Might Change the Music Copyright Landscape In SA

A recent ruling by a South African high court barred streaming platforms from taking down duo Blaq Diamond’s music while acting on copyright infringement complaints from their former label Ambitiouz Entertainment. The two entities are currently embroiled in a court battle over the validity of contract termination by the former. The ruling, in general, sets precedence for artists to monetise their music from streams even in the middle of court disputes with labels.

In June, Blaq Diamond, the South African music duo consisting of artists Ndumiso Mdletshe and Sphelele Dunywa, emerged partly victorious at the Johannesburg high court following a protracted legal battle with music label Ambitiouz Entertainment. The court ruled that the record label should not take down the group’s music over copyright impasse on YouTube. Other streaming platforms, including iTunes, Spotify, and Deezer, were also ordered to not act on copyright infringement complaints from the label. The court battle began in October 2022 after Ambitiouz Entertainment removed Blaq Diamond’s hit song Qoma from YouTube and also threatened to remove the group’s channel altogether.

However, it is important to note that the ruling only covers Part A of the case which is concerned with the removal of the duo’s music from streaming platforms.The process was initiated by the label either through copyright infringement complaints or directly. Part B of the case, which concerns the validity of the termination of the contract with the label by Blaq Diamond, still has to go to trial.

The fallout

According to Sunday World, the label says the duo “unlawfully” terminated its contracts and continued getting paid for gigs and streams behind its back. Blaq Diamond’s first contract with Ambitiouz was signed in 2017 and renewed in 2020 before the group left the company in January 2022.

In the “resignation letter”, it is alleged that the artists said in addition to surrendering their royalties, they would “sign over all the sales, streams royalties, and publishing” of their music released under Ambitiouz to the label. The label, however, claims to have rejected those terms and conditions and the contract termination itself.

“[The purpose of the ruling] was to stop any persons from raising copyright infringement claims against my clients’  newly released music on digital streaming providers and also ordered YouTube to stop taking my client’s music down,” Blaq Diamond’s attorney Jade Louella said in a message.

The ruling applies to all music released by the duo from June 15, 2023 onward.

The potential impact of the case on SA music copyright landscape

“We just came back from the court and we came back with a win. This is a game changer for the music industry, especially to all those artists that sign contracts that are not okay... or not fair contracts,” said Mdletshe after the ruling. “We would drop music and our previous record label would go on YouTube and try to take [it down].”

Disputes between artists and labels around copyrights are overtly common in South Africa. In 2017, rapper Fifi Cooper was interdicted from performing or claiming ownership of any song recorded while she was signed under Ambitiouz Entertainment. Unlike Blaq Diamond’s case, Cooper lost the case and was ordered to pay damages and royalties to Ambitiouz Entertainment, as well as the record company's legal fees.

Another Ambitiouz Entertainment artist, singer Amanda Black, also sued the label and eventually won the case in which she claimed the entity had withheld about R965 000 ($70 000) and a R200 000 cash prize for winning the Listeners Choice and Best R&B awards at the 2017 Metros. Other artists including A-Reece, B3nchmarQ, and Emtee have also had a stint with the label in court.

According to Louella, the ruling will set precedence for other artists to not have their music, which is their livelihood, taken down from streaming platforms pending the outcome of court cases which sometimes drag on for months, or even years on end.

“[The ruling] gives artists a chance to gain momentum with their music through digital streaming platforms and make revenue from streams even when there is pending litigation to get relief in terms of validity of the contracts that are in dispute. This has never been done before in our courts as far as I'm aware,” she added.

Still a long way to go for Blaq Diamond

Despite having achieved a milestone victory which allows them to monetise their music, the court case is far from over as it still has to go to trial. Additionally, Ambitiouz Entertainment intends to not only appeal the ruling, but also issue copyright strikes for all music released by the duo before 15 June.

“In light of the court order, Ambitiouz Entertainment accepts it with the utmost respect and will comply accordingly. However, we would like to inform our valued supporters that we will be diligently exploring the available legal avenues to appeal the judgement. We believe it is important to exercise our right to respectfully challenge the decision and seek further clarity,” the label said in a statement.

Louella, in a tweet following the judgement, stated that her clients and herself were ready for the coming battle at trial, which she confirmed to that it might take place in a year or two.

“[It is an] interim interdict pending Part B at trial, where we will conquer exploitative contracts in the music industry,” she tweeted.

The ruling points to the complexities of operating in different legal jurisdictions for digital streaming platforms, who, as evidenced by the Blaq Diamond and Ambitiouz Entertainment case, often find themselves stuck in the middle of messy court cases between labels and artists.

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