Lawyer Limelight: Larry Iser
Photo by Hugh Williams

When Jackson Browne was upset that the John McCain presidential campaign used his song "Running on Empty" in a commercial, he turned to Larry Iser to defend his rights and file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. That's not surprising, given that Iser has handled the intellectual property legal needs for a large number of musicians, groups and estates: Michael Jackson, The Beatles, The Doors, Axl Rose, Branford Marsalis, The Ira Gershwin Music Trust and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among many others.

The name partner and managing partner of renowned litigation boutique Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert also represents record companies, movie studios, TV networks, actors and other entities in his wide-ranging entertainment practice.

A talented musician in his own right, Iser serves as President of the Board of the Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles, for which former "Seinfeld" star Jason Alexander serves as artistic director.

Lawdragon: Given your interest in the arts, how did you become a lawyer?

Larry Iser: Before I went to college, music was pretty much my life, starting in elementary school. I played professionally in high school and through college, and I was the musical director of the student theatre organization at the University of Michigan. I played all the brass instruments and piano. I didn't major in music, but I took as many classes as I could in the music school and the business school.

The best class I took as an undergrad was Business Law, taught by a professor named George Cameron. He really made the material come alive. He was like a rock star to the class. We all decided to apply to law school based on that class, and that's how I decided to do what I'm doing. Once I went to law school I never seriously considered a professional career as a musician.

LD: Did you practice in music-related law from the outset?

LI: At the very beginning, I actually did airplane crash litigation, which was very interesting work. I took lots of depositions and was in federal court all the time. I really cut my teeth on those cases. In my third year of practice, I went to [the law firm] Greenberg Glusker. My first case was representing the Beatles in the "Beatlemania" case, and all at once my passions for law and music and theatre came together.

I found myself in New York City interviewing witnesses who worked on the Broadway production. We obtained an injunction to halt further production of the play. Later we brought actions against former "Beatlemania" cast members who developed club acts imitating the Beatles. We also handled other matters related to counterfeit Beatles products. That was my introduction to IP litigation, and I never looked back.

LD: Out of all the artists you've represented, which was the most interesting or exciting?

LI: The individual artist who was the most exciting client was, without doubt, Michael Jackson, who became a client of ours right after the album "Bad" came out, which was the album after "Thriller." We handled all manner of litigation for Michael, including, what seemed like multiple bogus claims of copyright infringement with respect to every song on the album.

My ten minutes of fame came at the conclusion of a lawsuit brought by the inventor of a "3-D" sound system, who sued Michael complaining that, although Michael gave him credit on the record, he couldn't hear the "3-D" sound. Immediately after summary judgment was granted and the case was dismissed, the plaintiff came up from behind me and punched me in the jaw, lifting me off my feet and knocking me down onto the aisle of the courtroom. I didn't want to scare my parents, so I didn't tell them of the incident.

Nevertheless, the story was on CNN the next day, and they were only a little freaked out. I'm proud to say I took a punch for Michael. After representing Michael, the work for musical artists and record companies came fairly regularly.

LD: What was your reaction to his death?

LI: What a tragedy. In Michael's words, he's "Gone Too Soon." Long before the world accepted and idolized Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson transcended race. He also transformed the music business by negotiating recording and publishing contracts that broke barriers. He was a one-of-a-kind talent, the likes of which I doubt I'll see again in my lifetime. I'm honored to have known him and to have worked with him.

LD: The Jackson Browne suit [which remains pending] has gotten a lot of attention. Given that you hear "Running on Empty" all the time on the radio, why is it a big deal if it's used in a campaign commercial?

LI: It's a big deal. Look, Jackson Browne makes his living, puts bread on the table and feeds his family by writing songs and performing them on records and in concert. Copyright law derives from the U.S. Constitution, Article 1 Section 8. Copyright law gives authors and inventors the exclusive right to use their work or to permit others to use it for a period of time, after which it goes into the public domain. Think about if that wasn't the case. If songwriters like Jackson Browne couldn't earn a living writing songs, they'd have to do something else, like go to law school.

Jackson was upset in this case because the Ohio Republican Party took one of his most famous songs and used it in a campaign commercial without obtaining a license. Jackson's been offered commercials many times over the years, but he has not wanted to associate his creative work with the selling of a product. Yet, they took his song and used it in a campaign commercial without permission, without even asking, and that's copyright infringement.

The Republican Party has tried to make this about politics, saying that Jackson is a liberal who doesn't like John McCain. But this case has nothing to do with politics. Jackson is standing up for his rights, and in doing so, is making a stand on behalf of all songwriters. The significance of this case is that it shows that copyright laws are alive and well, and that they apply to everyone, even politicians.

LD: Is it a challenge to get young artists to understand their IP rights? What advice do you give?

LI: It's a huge challenge. When I speak on this publicly and talk to young people about this business side of being a musician, the first thing I tell them is to read a book by Don Passman called "You Need to Know About the Music Business." It's written in an easy-to-understand, non-legal-jargon style and literally teaches young artists everything they need to know. From the first time you write songs, you need to get copyright protection. Music is a business. You have to watch out for yourself and learn the business side of your trade. If not, you'll find that others are making all the money from your creativity. So first read Don Passman's book, and when the time is right, find yourself a good lawyer.

LD: You've represented Roland Corp. for a number of years - what do you do for them?

LI: For the past 15 years I've served as U.S. copyright counsel for Roland, which makes electronic musical instruments. I've worked to protect new and developing forms of music and music technology, including establishing copyright protection for the sounds contained in Roland's equipment. As technology evolves, you have to find a way to protect creations, even if they do not fall precisely within existing intellectual property protections. That's what's been very interesting and rewarding representing Roland. What's great about my practice is that it's not just about artists and record companies - with Roland my practice gets into the fundamentals of music and musical theory, how sounds are generated and how to protect those sounds.

LD: How did you become involved with Reprise and Jason Alexander?

LI: Eight years ago, I saw the Reprise production of "Hair," and I couldn't believe a homegrown professional theatre company was doing this caliber of work five minutes from my office. I asked a friend to be introduced to the board president of Reprise, and I joined the board two weeks later. About 18 months ago, I became President of the Board, and we hired Jason as the artistic director.

So in addition to my law practice and being the managing partner of the firm, my other full-time job is running a theatre company. What a joy it is for me to be involved in the production of live theatre. Everybody knows Jason from "Seinfeld,"  but before that, he had won a Tony award performing on Broadway. He is a brilliant man and really understands the theatre. I've learned so much working with him. We just finished our season, and it's been our most successful, both artistically and financially.