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Numero did not grant the RFT a requested interview. However, a label representative did e-mail us a statement:
The Numero Group ended its relationship with Mr. Oakes in 2008 at his request. Because our primary responsibility is to our recording artists and their fans, after our original agreement with Mr. Oakes had expired we struck a new deal with 11 of the 16 artists represented on the 33-track Numero 004 and created a new 22-track product as Buttons: Starter Kit, with new liner notes, new sequencing, and two new songs. Mr. Oakes has no ownership or stewardship in this new release. We believe that these circumstances, of which he is fully aware, have no relationship to, or impact on our satisfied clients and fans except as gossip and hearsay.
Oakes disputes this: "Prefill stayed in print for years after Numero and I stopped speaking. Why would I have a problem with it staying in print? The assertion is ridiculous."
Oakes says that he is now considering his legal options. "To my understanding, compilations and derivative works are born with a copyright that is held by the person who assembled it, if it comprised a work of authorship. I picked the songs — all from my collection and wrote the liner notes. The project was about me. And because I had a licensing/royalty deal with the label and was not an employee, I still own the copyright."
Attorney Bruce Oakes, who is Jordan's brother, has been in contact with Numero. "I feel strongly that if the court determined that Jordan did have a valid copyright, that the copyright was infringed," attorney Oakes says via e-mail. "It is [Numero's] contention that the new release is different enough from the original as to not raise any issues. The frustrating thing for Jordan is that it is cost-prohibitive to hire an attorney who practices in this area based on the amount of damages at issue."
Whether he would prevail is open for debate. Section 103 of the Copyright Act of 1976 does allow for protection of compilations, providing nothing in the work has not been used unlawfully. "The critical question is whether the selection, arrangement and organization of recordings is sufficiently original such that it's protected under copyright," says Alan Korn, a California-based attorney who specializes in music business and copyright issues.
This makes it fairly easy and straightforward to license preexisting compilation albums. The Prefill/Starter Kit issue is murkier. On one hand, Starter Kit did use many of the Prefill tracks, and it's unfortunate that Numero did not see fit to credit Oakes for his efforts. On the other hand, the label did approach each of the original copyright holders for Starter Kit and only used tracks by those that agreed to re-up.
"If the Copyright Office agreed and issued a copyright registration certificate, Oakes could pursue an infringement claim," Korn says. "It would then be up to the court to decide the scope of protection that Oakes retained. If a court ruled that his copyright in the compilation was narrowly protected, it would likely only protect against exact copying. In that case, Numero Group would have a strong case, since their subsequent collection is sequenced differently, doesn't include all the original recordings and adds a few additional tracks. Even if he prevailed, Jordan's entitlement to damages would depend on whether he registered his copyright interest in the compilation with the Copyright Office before any alleged infringement. If not, he could only recover actual damages — i.e., lost licensing income — or Numero Group's profits, neither of which appear to be substantial. So unless there's a prior registration on file, it's probably not the most cost-effective claim to pursue."
In the meantime, Numero has continued its inroads into the power-pop world. In the past two years, it has released a box set dedicated to Kansas City's Titan Records, compiled a second Buttons volume (From Champaign to Chicago) and released four LPs of rare and demo material by Shoes. Most of this material is excellent and lovingly packaged. Oakes says he's glad they've seen print. Mostly, he says, he's disappointed at the way this whole situation has played out.
"Like anyone, I simply expect to be treated fairly," he says. "Perhaps I was too trusting, but it doesn't justify how they're treating me now."