“When it comes to music copyright, oh God, no one knows the law,” Tom Werge said on a recent Friday afternoon in Denver as he finished a glass of New Belgium Mountain Time lager.
In a free-wheeling, devil-may-care digital age of streaming and YouTube, when music is ubiquitously used or reused with little regard for copyrights, lawyers like Werge must ensure their clients aren’t breaking the law and sue others who are using client’s songs.
“People do not know the laws, not even sophisticated parties like some music publishers and certainly not artists or management,” said Werge, who has played in the local ska band 12 Cents for Marvin since co-founding it at Colorado State University in 1996. “So, there’s a big need for legal advice, specifically in the area of copyright complaints, in music. It’s huge.”
That need was one of the reasons why, in April, Werge merged his law firm with that of Greg Corbin, an expert in transactional law — contracts, purchase agreements — for small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits. Their new firm, Werge Law Group, is an 11-employee boutique operation specializing in litigation, transactions and music law.
Their homebase is the second floor of a 5,000-square-foot, post-Victorian home that was built in 1905 along Vine Street in City Park West. As Corbin put it, “I think every small-firm lawyer wants to work out of an old mansion house, as if they’re on a TV show.”
Werge Law Group was born out of the pandemic. Werge, who cut his teeth at the big litigation firm Wheeler Trigg, was working with another lawyer at a boutique firm when COVID-19 arrived. His fellow lawyer was badly sickened by the virus and Werge asked Corbin to help out. Corbin, who ran the firm Signal Law, worked with Werge on a contract basis until their merger this April.
“We have cultivated relationships with entertainment firms around the country for a number of years and have started getting some referrals to do copyright infringement litigation,” Werge said. “We have a pretty big case going right now in the Southern District of New York.”
In that case, which was covered by TMZ, the Denver lawyers represent a music producer who goes by the name Ice Starr. Starr alleges a rapper named Yung Bleu used his instrumentals without permission or compensation on two of Bleu’s biggest hit songs. The case is ongoing.
Another client is a film production studio that is working on a short film related to the war in Ukraine. Werge said creatives often live up to their reputation of knowing, and caring, little about the business side of their work. That’s why they hire Corbin and Werge.
“Their head is in the clouds,” the latter lawyer said. “They have ideas and then we get to guide them, legally, on that journey.”
Corbin and Werge say the connective tissue linking their firm’s work is that it’s on behalf of small businesses, whether that’s an entrepreneurship, a nonprofit — “they don’t feel like a business, especially when they start out, but they are a business,” Corbin said — or a rock band.
“We are able to do that well and efficiently and not be the lawyers who take their clients along for a ride to make money off of them,” Werge said of their work for small businesses, “because we don’t have time to do that. There are too many people to help.”