Jo March & Taylor Swift: Copyrights and Artistic Control
Updated: Oct 23
At the New York City premiere of Greta Gerwig's Little Women in 2019, Emma Watson gave a short interview with Variety about the importance of ownership over creative work as a theme in the film. She told Variety, “It’s about believing in yourself and knowing your worth and owning your worth.”
She took a deep breath. In the video, you can see her weighing her decision to speak up on the subject, knowing it will spark a thousand thought-pieces. And it did. But she said it anyway, because it needed to be said: “Right now, the Taylor Swift situation is a great example of, you know, you’re young and you’re talented and someone wants to buy your work, but having ownership at the end of the day is super, super important because you don’t know what someone’s going to decide to do with that.”
For me, it was like watching worlds collide. I have always known that Taylor Swift and Jo March are kindred spirits, two brave women ahead of their times, but Gerwig's film gave new emphasis and insight to their similarities.
At the very end of the film, Jo stands there clutching her newly printed book to her body—and the most recent time I watched it, I thought to myself, Jo’s life broke her heart. And she broke her own heart over again writing the book. And in the end, the book is all she really has. It stores her memories of Beth. It keeps her childhood safe for her to return to. A book is such a measly thing, isn’t it? And yet it’s the most important thing. It’s the only thing that Jo could have created to protect her precious life. Jo is holding the book as if it's a life raft, as if it's her baby. And it is, in many ways. Jo brought this book to life, and it is hers to own.
Ownership over her work is an important theme in Gerwig’s rendition. In fact, the film’s tagline was “#ownyourstory,” emphasizing the value of ownership. The entire film is framed by scenes where Jo spars with a publisher over the price of her work. It is the very first scene and the last, so we can assume that we are supposed to pay attention here as Jo fights for the value of her work.
Very close to the release of the Little Women film at the end of 2019, Taylor Swift was preparing to be crowned Artist of the Decade at the American Music Awards, but she had run into a snag: the new owners of her back catalogue were threatening to block her from performing her old hits. They owned the masters. The songs she had carved out of her own body were now theirs to control.
On November 19, 2018, Taylor announced that she was moving from Big Machine Records, where she had been since the start of her career, to Republic Records and Universal Music Group. Fans knew that she’d been trying to come to a deal with Big Machine where she could own her masters. According to her, Big Machine had offered to let her “earn back” her masters one album at a time. Reputation, her final album recorded with Big Machine, was her seventh full-length studio album. So she would have had to make seven more albums in order to earn back her work.
Since Taylor typically releases an album every two years, we would have been looking at fourteen years of work in order for her to earn back the masters, for the songs she wrote, about her own life.
Taylor’s authorship has been called into question since the beginning of her career. Even in 2010, when John Mayer presented Taylor with the Hal David Starlight Award at the Songwriting Hall of Fame, he made jokes in his speech about asking people on her team, “Okay, who really writes the songs? No, you can tell me. Who’s writing them, really?”
What was meant to be playful was yet another reminder of Taylor’s limited credibility as a young, blonde songwriter. In an article for Communication, Culture, & Critique, Myles McNutt wrote an article called “From “Mine” to “Ours”: Gendered Hierarchies of Authorship and the Limits of Taylor Swift’s Paratextual Feminism” where he discussed the use of voice memos included on the album 1989 to give Taylor her songwriting credibility.
He wrote, “The article frames the “Voice Memos” included with her 2014 album 1989 as a form of paratextual feminism, reiterating the authenticity she developed as a country star and pushing back against claims her collaboration with male producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder threaten her autonomy as a female voice in the music industry.”
Despite becoming famous because she wrote her own songs with a deep authenticity about her own life (and notoriously “naming names” as she wrote, on Speak Now), Taylor was still, as late as 2014, struggling to prove that the songwriting was really her own.
When, after the success of 1989, Taylor’s stardom reached new heights, she was more vocal about wanting fairness for other songwriters. She wrote open letters to Apple music and Spotify. She included a dedication in her reputation tour to Loie Fuller, “pioneer in arts, dance, and design, and who fought for artists to own their work,” she wrote.
It should have come as no surprise to anyone who was paying even a hint of attention, then, that Taylor was ready to walk when it came to the deal with Big Machine. She wanted freedom for her music, now. She continually reminded her fans and anyone listening that she not only made the deal with Republic for herself, but for other artists as well. She used her influence to cut the deal with UMG so any sale of their Spotify shares would “result in a distribution to their artists, non-recoupable.”
Though it was a little jargon-y for the fans, Taylor was proud of this achievement. You could see it on her face when she mentioned it twice at her “Artist of the Decade” achievements both at Billboard and at the AMAs.
Then, the catalogue she left with Big Machine was sold to Sc**ter Braun for three hundred million dollars.
According to Taylor, she knew that Scott Borchetta, CEO of Big Machine, would sell the label, but she didn’t know about the sale to Braun, who had bullied Taylor publicly and was definitively not a Swift fan. She found out on the internet at the same time as everyone else. It felt like betrayal. This was her life’s work, and it was sold to someone who valued it monetarily but not for its true worth.
What’s more, Taylor Swift was capable of finding the funding to purchase her masters, at any price, and she was denied the opportunity. In a blog post on the subject, Borchetta said Taylor had “the opportunity” to own her masters, referring to the option of earning them back.
With all the money and stardom she had achieved, she was powerless to stop this, and she wasn’t going to be quiet about it. In the song “my tears ricochet” on the folklore album, universally thought to address this issue with Braun, she said, “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace.”
Well, why should she, anyway?
She knew what the masters were worth, and having been denied the opportunity to own them, she has continued to use tactics to prevent Scott and Scooter from benefitting, blocking the song’s use in film, advertisements, and other places.
In this way, Emma Watson was completely justified in what she said about the Taylor Swift - Jo March comparison, specifically if we’re talking about Jo March from the 2019 film. In the film, Jo starts to realize that the publisher thinks she has something good with her book. He offers her an advance, but Jo leans forward and says, “You keep your five hundred dollars, and I’ll keep the copyright. Also I want ten percent of royalties.” Her tapping finger on the desk is a testament to her insistence. We have to give her a lot of credit.
I have argued before, however, that Gerwig conflates Jo’s life with Louisa May Alcott’s. There is strange blending in Gerwig’s telling that makes it difficult to decipher if we are supposed to interpret this life as Louisa May Alcott’s or not.
Louisa May Alcott, like Taylor Swift, drew much of her inspiration from her own life. She wrote in her journal, "We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds that will be the reason for it."
Louisa May Alcott’s publisher for Little Women was called Thomas Niles. The story goes that Niles thought a book for girls would sell very well. He’d seen the success of books written for boys, and he wanted something for girls. Louisa was not convinced, but Louisa’s father had written a book, and Niles agreed to publish it—on the condition that Louisa write the book he wanted, the book for girls.
So Louisa set out to prove to Niles that it wouldn’t work. Years later, she wrote a letter to Miss Churchill, saying, “‘Little Women’ was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for it.”
In John Matteson’s seminal biography of Louisa, Eden’s Outcasts, Matteson writes, “Niles told [Louisa] that he had shown the early chapters to his niece, Lillie Almy, who had laughed over them until she cried. Niles revised his earlier judgment; he had been reading with the eye of a literary editor, not the sensibilities of an adolescent girl" (336).
This scene is not included in the novel version of Little Women, but it is included in the film. We see the publisher’s mind changing, and his business mind begins to take over. Suddenly, Little Women looks like an opportunity.
In Marmee and Louisa, Eve LaPlante goes into more detail: “A few weeks later, at his office on Washington Street in Boston, the publisher and Louisa discussed the terms of their contract. Niles offered her a choice: an advance of $1,000 and no royalties, or a smaller advance of $300 and royalties on each copy sold” (228).
In August of 1868, Louisa recorded in her journal: “Roberts Bros. made an offer for the story, but advised me to keep the copyright, so I shall.” In 1885, she added a note to this journal entry: “An honest publisher and a lucky author, for the copyright made her fortune, and the ‘dull book’ was the first golden egg of the ugly duckling.”
A year later, when Good Wives (known today as Little Women Part 2) had been published, she wrote to him at Roberts Brothers:
“Many thanks for the check which made my Christmas an unusually merry one. After toiling so many years along he up-hill road, always a hard one to women writers, it is peculiarly grateful to me to find the way growing easier at last; with pleasant little surprises blossoming on either side, and the rough places made smooth by the courtesy and kindness of those who have proved themselves ‘friends’ as well as ‘publishers.’”
By the time Louisa May Alcott passed away, she was even more savvy when it came to owning her work. She had legally adopted her sister Anna’s youngest son, John, and he inherited her copyrights so they would not expire. He continued to inherit her royalties and shared them with his brother and their only first cousin on the Alcott side, Louisa “Lulu” May Nieriker.
Ultimately, it was thanks to Thomas Niles that Louisa May Alcott retained ownership of her work in the first place. This was the part that Gerwig changed in the film, making it seem as if keeping the copyright was Jo's idea. In this way, we have to also acknowledge the meta-parallel that Gerwig wants to own this story, her version of Little Women, the one she has written and directed. After all, Louisa May Alcott doesn't hold the copyright to Little Women anymore.
In her brief chat with Variety, Emma Watson ended by saying, “I think people undervalue ownership. You know when you play Monopoly and you have a decision and you want to own something or get cash fast. The way to win Monopoly, everyone, is to own stuff. I’m just saying.”
Louisa May Alcott earned an estimated $180,000 in royalties from the first volume of Little Women in the first ten years it was published. That is close to $3 million in today’s dollars. And that figure didn’t include any of her other novels or international sales, and Louisa was very popular overseas. So she certainly knew and understood that the way to win Monopoly was to own stuff.
It is a shame that when Scott Borchetta signed Taylor Swift when she was fourteen years old, he was not as ethical as Thomas Niles.
I have no doubt that Taylor Swift will prevail here. She will rerecord her past albums (as she has repeatedly expressed) when she is legally allowed in November of this year (2020), so her work can be featured in other places such as on film, when she has complete creative control over it.
In 2009, when Taylor performed with T-Pain at the CMT awards, it was part of a larger sketch where she kept saying she wanted to do something, and then she’d say, “But it’s my dream,” and it would magically come true. She said, “I want to be a rapper. It’s my dream,” and then it cut to T-Swift and T-Pain “rapping all up on the same track.”
It wasn’t that funny though because generally, when something is Taylor’s dream, it comes true. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I see a future where Taylor will own all her masters. She deserves them, as we know, because her life and her stories are her own. And life breaks your heart. If you have the capacity to turn that into art, then you should be allowed to control what happens to it, regardless of your gender, age, industry, and whether or not people believe you.