Earlier this summer, YouTube’s queen of beauty, Michelle Phan, found herself in legal hot water. She was slapped with a lawsuit by dance music label Ultra Records and their distribution arm Ultra International Music Publishing. The suit alleged that Michelle had violated those organization’s copyrights by utilizing their songs and musical compilations in her videos without licensing them.
Now Michelle is striking back.
According to a report by Variety, Michelle is counter-suing the record label, seeking a declaratory judgment that would neutralize the suit.
According to Phan’s legal team, Michelle receive permission to use the songs in question, most of which were part of her early videos from 2009 and 2010, from an Ultra Records senior manager who hoped that allowing their music to be used in Michelle’s videos would have a positive effect on their iTunes sales. According to Michelle’s counter-suit this authorization should be treated as a non-revocable license to use Ultra’s music. Michelle is also reportedly suing for damages claiming that Ultra’s suit is both fraudulent and malicious.
Informal agreements with music publishers like the one that Phan’s counter-suit describes were common place in the early days of YouTube. At that time no one had yet imagined what a YouTube star’s earning potential could be; allowing the use of copyrighted music in videos seemed like a harmless promotional tactic. That was 2009, when YouTube was still an immature industry populated by young creators with little experience and no legal team.
In 2014, YouTube stars like Michelle Phan are valuable brands worth, as Harley Morenstein would be put it, MILLIONS OF DOLLARS and so the tables have turned. Michelle Phan’s handshake agreement with Ultra Records is likely one of many that the record industry is rethinking now that YouTube creators are breaking into the mainstream in a big way. It’s too soon to tell how the courts will rule on Michelle’s counter-claim, but one thing is certain: This case will likely be a test for a boatload of similar future claims against YouTube’s most successful.