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Larry Heard and Robert Owens win legal case against Trax Records, regain ownership of early releases

The copyright has been returned to the Chicago duo after a decades-long battle

Larry Heard and Robert Owens via Traxsource

Larry Heard and Robert Owens have won their legal case against Trax Records, The Guardian reports

In 2020, Chicago house innovators Heard (AKA Mr Fingers) and Owens filed a copyright infringement suit against Trax, originally reported by 5Mag. The suit stated that the pair were never paid royalties for their tracks on the label, and that they were exploited and coerced into signing away rights to their music as young musicians. It alleged that Trax Records had not been correctly assigned the copyrights to Heard and Owens' music, as original copyright filings contained false information, and therefore should be invalidated in court.

The pair sought a minimum total of $1 million in damages from the label. Tracks included influential early work by the pioneering artists such as 'Can You Feel It', 'Washing Machine', 'Beyond the Clouds', 'Bring Down the Walls', 'Distant Planet', 'Never No More Lonely' and 'Donnie'.

"During the decades since Defendants (Trax Records) first began exploiting musical works created by Larry Heard and/or Robert Owens, neither Heard nor Owens was properly compensated for the great value of each’s musical labors," the original lawsuit's preliminary statement read. "Instead, Defendants enriched themselves and brazenly exploited those musical works for their sole benefit, while encouraging and enabling others to do the same."

As The Guardian's reports, Heard and Owens' lawyer Robert S Meloni confirmed that “the parties amicably resolved their disputes” after Trax could not provide any material proof of copyright ownership, and that Heard and Owens now own the musical composition and sound recording copyrights for all their music. The pair now will now be able to "release it independently if they so chose."

The pair haven't been awarded any damages, however, as the lawsuit's original target — Trax founder Larry Sherman — has died, and the current owners of Trax cannot afford to pay. 

Speaking with The Guardian about winning back the rights to their music, Owens said: “It felt beautiful, and it gives me peace knowing that there is a clear road moving forward. I’ve seen the destruction that often occurs in this music industry, so I feel blessed and grateful for all those that have been here in my life, helping me through this journey, who wanted to correct something wrong.” 

Heard added: “I know how things can seem insurmountable, but maybe some others will take the actions needed, even if they are in small steps."

Trax Records was founded by Sherman in 1984 with Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence. While the label played a key role in house music’s nascence, releasing some of its most important early tracks including Heard’s ‘Can You Feel It’, Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’ and Frankie Knuckles’ ‘Your Love’, it has gone on to face numerous lawsuits over several decades, usually relating to alleged unpaid royalties, not providing artists with proper contracts, and using cheap, poor quality vinyl.

Photo: Traxsource