How intellectual property attorney Michael Cohen ended up with pages of doodles by Miles Davis
Published in 2010 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine on November 11, 2010
Playing drums in the fourth grade changed Michael Cohen’s perspective on creativity. “I quickly realized that I was not quite good enough to do it professionally and actually make a living at it,” says Cohen, “so if at least I can surround myself with people who are, I’m pretty satisfied.”
His clients at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt are diverse—from wineries to bands—but all share one thing. “All my clients are creative in some way, shape or form. They’re creating new things, whether it’s music or books or new footwear styles or new brands or advertising campaigns,” says the intellectual property attorney. He loves working with people who have great ideas “and then helping them actually protect—and, hopefully, be rewarded financially or otherwise for—their creations.”
While studying political science at The University of Chicago, Cohen became a talent buyer, pursuing big names like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys to entertain students. He met many artists, but few experiences were as memorable as his encounter with Miles Davis.
One day, Davis’ manager asked Cohen to meet the celeb at the airport and escort him to his hotel. Cohen, a jazz fan, couldn’t say no. A limo brought Cohen to O’Hare International Airport, where he met Davis. “We got into the limo and he started telling stories,” Cohen says. “I didn’t leave his hotel room until about 3 o’clock in the morning because he was just telling stories, one after another. It was really an incredible experience. … I’ve got all these doodles that Miles was making while he was talking to me and telling me stories, and he’d sign all of them, ‘To Mike, Miles.’”
When he graduated in 1989, Cohen became chief talent buyer at Portland’s Double Tee Promotions music-promotion company. He worked with talent agents and lawyers for artists like Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Santana, reviewing and negotiating contracts. Cohen got to thinking that law school might be a good next step. “I felt like I kind of was playing lawyer a lot,” he says. “After a particularly—how shall I put it—contentious post-show settlement with Jimmy Buffett’s business manager … I finally threw up my hands and said, ‘I might actually try my hand at this law school thing.’”
Cohen found his home at Schwabe after graduating from the University of Oregon School of Law in 1996, then clerking at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Firm partner David Axelrod sent him to Beverly Hills for lunch with a friend and entertainment lawyer, Cyrus Godfrey, who, it turned out, needed help with a case. This was not just any client, but singer Peggy Lee. “[Capitol Records was] paying her what they call a ‘penny royalty’ rate. So they were basically taking her old contracts that she had signed in the ’40s and applying those old contract terms to pay the same penny rate, even though the industry had changed completely,” says Cohen. “Back in the day when she signed it, it was all vinyl records and things of that nature, which were really expensive to manufacture. Now, given the new media and the advent of CDs and such, there was really no reasonable basis for them to be continuing to pay this penny rate.” After a successful settlement for Lee, Cohen and the same legal team took on Universal Music Group in 1999 in a similar case representing Lee and music greats including the estates of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. “What it resulted in was new, modernized contract terms for these artists,” he says. “It was a very satisfying type of work to be involved in, a very satisfying end result for the clients.”
Today, Cohen’s music industry cases typically involve disputes between now-successful bands and former managers. Cohen says only about 25 percent of his practice is entertainment-related (the rest is representation of brand-name companies), but he gets his fill of music by going to live concerts—and he further sharpens his legal skills as general counsel and board member of the Portland Rose Festival. His background helps with the logistics involved in setting up events, but there are other legal issues. “Sometimes they have First Amendment-type of issues come up when people want to stage demonstrations at their parades, for example, or down at the waterfront where they have a big event every year,” he says. “Obviously, you don’t want it to be disruptive to the event, but you also have to respect the free speech rights of the folks who want to be heard, so it’s just kind of finding that happy medium.”
This summer, Cohen traveled to China for client Columbia Sportswear to crack down on counterfeiting—even accompanying law enforcement on a couple of raids. “The counterfeits are sold in China, but they also are exported as well, so part of it is working to educate law enforcement officials there about what the issues are and help them, for example, just identify what a counterfeit product is, because oftentimes it’s not readily apparent,” Cohen says.
Whether it’s helping Columbia Sportswear enforce and defend its trademarks or helping A to Z Wineworks avoid trademark conflicts with a new wine name, Cohen enjoys helping others fulfill their dreams. “For clients, it’s often the kind of thing they’ve always hoped they could accomplish and they’ve actually gotten it now,” Cohen says. “Seeing the smiles on a client’s face after you’ve helped them through that process is just very rewarding.”