Bob Dylan Prevails in Lawsuit Filed by Estate of ‘Desire’ Co-Writer Jacques Levy

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The estate for Jacques Levy, co-writer of much of Bob Dylan’s 1976 “Desire” album, was handed a defeat Friday in a lawsuit against Dylan and Universal Music Group that hoped to establish co-ownership of the songs the late collaborator had a hand in.

“We’re pleased with today’s decision,” Dylan’s attorney, Orin Snyder, said in a statement Friday. “As we said when the case was filed, this lawsuit was a sad attempt to profit off the recent catalog sale. We’re glad it’s now over.”

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Levy’s widow, Claudia Levy, filed the suit in January after Dylan sold his publishing catalog to Universal Music Publishing Group in December, contending that the estate should received a portion of Dylan’s overall haul from the reported $300 million sale, commensurate with the 10 songs in the catalog 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 noted that Levy’s estate has continued to receive royalties from the co-written songs, before and after Dylan’s catalog sale, set at 35%, with no ownership conferred.

Wrote Ostrager in his 18-page decision: “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. 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 ’75 agreement, which describes Levy as an “employee-for-hire” as 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 $1.75 million as their fair share of the catalog sale, plus $2 million in punitive damages. They arrived at the $1.75 million figure by looking at the reported $300 million sale of Dylan’s catalog 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.

The 10 songs listed as Dylan/Levy co-writes are “Hurricane,” “Isis,” “Mozambique,” “Oh Sister,” “Joey,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Black Diamond Bay,” which appeared on the “Desire” album, plus “Catfish,” “Money Blues” and “Rita Mae.” “Catfish” eventually appeared on the first release in Dylan’s “Bootleg Series,” and “Rita Mae” appeared as a single B-side (and was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis). The 10th song, “Money Blues,” remains unreleased, although the words were published in a complete book of Dylan lyrics.

Levy died in 2004. His multi-leveled career included being a practicing psychologist, avant-garde theater director and playwright. 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 catalogs 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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