On February 12, George Clinton brought the latest iteration of his P-Funk Allstars to New York’s B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. A few hours before the band would treat a jam-packed house to a raucous, three-hour set featuring such hits as “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Flashlight,” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” the 71-year-old Clinton sat at a table draped in red cloth and spoke to a sparse audience about the long-running legal fight he has waged to reclaim control of his back catalog. The “Godfather of Funk”—who favors a clean-cut style over his trademark look of long dreads and colorful clothing these days—was dressed in a black suit and fedora adorned with a red and white feather. He had called the press conference to announce a petition drive aimed at persuading government officials to review the copyright filing process. In a statement issued by his management in advance of the session, Clinton said soberly that he wants to be remembered for calling attention to the issue of protecting artists’ copyrights. “That’s what I would like my legacy to be," he said in the statement, “to have turned people on to the fact that they need to fight for their rights to their music.” In person, the man whose other signature songs include “Atomic Dog,” “Freak of the Week,” and “Maggot Brain,” described his mission in more colorful terms: "I want to say we gonna fight this shit until we make noise, so much noise that everybody will know what the fuck we’re talking about.” Clinton has been making records for 54 years and making noise about copyright issues for more than a decade. His latest copyright push comes on the heels of an unusual, possibly precedent-setting federal court order that threatens to sully one of his rare wins on the intellectual property front—and puts him at odds with a law firm that played a role in securing that victory. In November, Seattle federal district judge Robert Lasnik ruled [ PDF] that Clinton must cede the copyrights to the master recordings of four Fundadelic albums released by Warner Bros. between 1976 and 1981—Hardcore Jollies, One Nation Under a Groove, Uncle Jam Wants You, and The Electric Spanking of War Babies—to Seattle-based Hendricks & Lewis to make good on more than $1.5 million in unpaid legal fees. Hendricks & Lewis, which is being represented in its efforts to collect the unpaid tab by Davis Wright Tremaine, racked up at least some of those bills helping the 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee win control of those copyrights in the first place. Clinton’s stepped-up copyright crusade also comes at a key juncture in the broader IP war between record companies and artists. Thanks to a 1976 change to U.S. copyright law, 2013 is the first year that musicians can use so-called termination rights to assert legal control of the copyrights to master recordings of songs made at least 35 years ago. According to Billboard, artists like Devo, Pat Benatar, and Billy Joel had already filed termination claims as of December 2012. At his February 12 press conference, Clinton said he is set to join them: “We’re going to be fighting for this, and you’re going to hear a lot about it.”
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