The legal field is incredibly dynamic. Every day, new laws are written, old ones are revised, more cases are tried, and new case law is created on the local, state and federal levels. To provide competent legal counsel, attorneys must be constantly learning and growing. In recognition of this fact, every state requires licensed attorneys to complete several hours of mandatory continuing legal education (CLE) per reporting period.
Even without CLE requirements, professional development and continuing education would be vital for attorneys — particularly for those who specialize in entertainment law. To help attorneys stay abreast of changes and trends in this constantly changing field, the USC Gould School of Law offers not only an online LLM degree but also an Entertainment Law and Industry certificate.
What makes entertainment law especially challenging? Several factors keep this field in a constant state of flux:
- The ambiguous definition of “entertainment law.”
- The varied roles adopted by entertainment lawyers.
- The types of clients who need their services.
- Legal developments that affect the entertainment industry.
The Definition of Entertainment Law
Unlike constitutional or criminal law, entertainment law does not have a specific breadth of application. It is a naturally broad sphere of law, encompassing everything from intellectual property to contracts and employment law. In short, entertainment law is as varied as the entertainment industry itself.
Still, writing for the American Bar Association, Kirk T. Schroder argues, “Despite the lack of a universally accepted definition of what entertainment lawyers do, a legal practice in this industry is distinct from other areas of law.” Schroder goes on to note that practice areas for an entertainment lawyer may include any or all of the following:
- Intellectual property
To prepare students to thrive, USC’s Entertainment Law and Industry Certificate program covers topics such as business organizations, contract drafting and strategy and intellectual property (including copyrights and trademarks).
The Role of an Entertainment Lawyer
Entertainment lawyers can fill several roles depending on their specialization and the needs of their clients. On any given day, an entertainment lawyer might perform the following tasks:
- Drafting and negotiating contracts.
- Reviewing legal documents.
- Facilitating distribution deals.
- Working on financial agreements.
- Preparing form agreements.
Among the documents that might be handled by an entertainment lawyer are those related to licensing agreements, recording agreements, sponsorship deals, bank loans, investments and appearance releases. In these situations, entertainment lawyers are responsible for ensuring that their clients understand what they are signing and for protecting their clients’ interests.
In addition to drafting, reviewing, and negotiating agreements, entertainment lawyers may provide other services to their clients. For example, they might serve as liaisons to connect entertainers with agents, networks, venues, professional associations and more. They might also be called upon to defend their clients’ intellectual property rights in court.
Entertainment lawyers may even assist with projects that wouldn’t normally fall under the purview of a lawyer. For example, they might offer their opinion on pitches or budgets. Since these projects may have serious legal or financial consequences, the advice of an attorney is helpful.
The Clients of Entertainment Lawyers
An entertainment lawyer must be able to adapt to different clients or as a client’s needs evolve. Whether they work for companies or individuals, entertainment lawyers can count on their clients changing over time. Actors, athletes and other talent may expand into other industries by founding charities, opening restaurants, launching clothing lines, or starting other businesses. Singers may transition to acting and actors to singing, or clients may move between television, film, and live performances.
Many entertainment lawyers narrow their focus to a specific sector of the industry. According to Beth Bruns, a senior legal editor on Practical Law’s Intellectual Property & Technology team, this is a practical approach. In an article for Above the Law, she notes that “each sector has its own industry norms.” If the majority of a lawyer’s clients work in the music industry, for example, it is easier to specialize in this sector than to diversify.
To succeed in the long term, entertainment lawyers must be ready to step into new territory and take on new responsibilities, either to grow their client base or retain existing clients.
The Impact of Legal Developments
Entertainment lawyers must stay up-to-date on legal developments that affect the entertainment industry. One recent example is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Writing for Lexology, Alan J. Epstein, Shane P. Nix, and Michael D. Foster of Venerable LLP explain that there are several provisions of the Act that impact the entertainment industry. These provisions include:
- The immediate deduction of production costs. A bonus depreciation provision replaced Code Section 181, removing the deduction limit and changing the timing of the deduction.
- Meals and entertainment expenses. Taxpayers will still be able to deduct up to 50 percent of meal expenses related to their business through 2025. However, entertainment expenses, such as premier parties or season sports tickets, are no longer deductible.
- Limits on state and local income taxes. The deduction for state and local income taxes is now limited, in most cases, to $10,000. This will make states with high income-tax rates less attractive for entertainers to live and work in.
- Disallowance of employee business expenses. Entertainers often incur a variety of business expenses, including payments to their agents, managers, and attorneys. Under the new act, these business expenses can no longer be written off as a tax deduction by individuals. As a result, more entertainers will likely form loan-out companies that allow them to deduct these expenses.
Entertainment lawyers must be aware of these and other legal developments so that they can advise their clients accordingly.
Earning an LLM degree online or pursuing the specialized Entertainment Law & Industry certificate are excellent ways for attorneys to further develop their expertise in their chosen practice area and stay abreast of changes in the law. In many cases, such coursework can even be counted toward an attorney’s mandatory CLE requirements. To learn more about the benefits of an LLM degree and the Entertainment Law and Industry certificate offered online by the University of Southern California, visit the USC Gould School of Law.