One of the biggest stories in pop music in the past ten years could just as easily have occurred at any given time in the history of the music industry: A young female pop star takes her Svengali-like big-name boss to court in a fight for her freedom. The current face-off surrounds Kesha’s lawsuit against Dr. Luke — her former producer and the former head of Kemosabe Records, the label she is currently signed to — over accusations ranging from emotional abuse to rape, all of which have have spiraled into a court case that finds Kesha demanding release from her contract.
The two have been waging their legal war for over five years, with multiple battles lost on both sides and no end in sight. With the release of Kesha’s new album, High Road (the second since her sexual-assault lawsuit), and a new legal ruling that she defamed Dr. Luke, it seemed like a good time to take a detailed look at the complete history of the intense ongoing litigation between the two.
September 2005: Kesha Sebert, an 18-year-old singer, who at the time had a small cameo on Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s The Simple Life, signs with Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, after he hears her demos and convinces her to move from Nashville to Los Angeles. At the time, Luke was best known for producing Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Kesha signed a six-album deal binding her to his recording and publishing companies, Kasz Money (KMI) and Prescription Songs.
October 2005, the alleged rape: Kesha and Dr. Luke attend Nicky Hilton’s birthday party at her sister Paris’s Hollywood Hills home. According to Kesha’s lawsuit and an account from her mother, Pebe Sebert (who writes for Kesha), while at the party, Luke gave Kesha the date-rape drug GHB (he allegedly described it to her as “sober pills”), took her back to his hotel room, and “raped her while she was unconscious.” Kesha’s mother says she received a call from a disoriented Kesha the following afternoon where Kesha described waking up naked in Luke’s hotel room after blacking out the previous night:
“Mom, I don’t know where I am. I think we had sex. I’m sore and sick. I don’t know where my clothes are. I think I need to go to the hospital,” she recalls of the conversation. Kesha ultimately did not go to the hospital. In a later affidavit, Pebe says Kesha told her, ‘Mom, I just want to sing. I don’t want to be a rape-case victim. I just want to get my music out.’ I didn’t follow my instincts.”
2006: A year passes without Kesha releasing any music under Luke’s label, Kesha signs a management deal with David Sonnerberg’s DAS Communications, which represented the Black Eyed Peas and John Legend, in hopes that they could sign her to a major label. She adopts the infamous dollar sign in her name, professionally becoming Ke$ha.
2008: Despite DAS claiming to have found Kesha a deal with Warner Bros. Records to release her debut album, Kesha leaves her contract with DAS to once again work with Luke, and agrees to have him bring her contract over to RCA Records, a Sony Music Entertainment subsidiary, for distribution of future albums and singles. Both Kesha and DAS have since claimed in court that Luke coerced Kesha into leaving DAS. Kesha once told her mother, “Dr. Luke just called me and I have 24 hours to fire my lawyer and my managers and go back with him. Anytime I get a contract, he’s going to come forward and basically say he owns me. What do I do?” Despite their termination, DAS continues to keep finding Kesha new work.
2009: Kesha gets her first hit as a featured artist on Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” which Luke produced and co-wrote. The collaboration was happenstance: Kesha had wandered into the studio where Flo Rida was recording just as he realized the song needed a female voice. Kesha remains uncredited on most versions of the song and claims she was never paid.
2009: After nearly five years of artist development, Kesha gets her first solo hit with her debut single “Tik Tok,” which goes on to spend nine weeks at No. 1. Her first album, Animal, also debuts at No. 1 in January 2010, selling 152,000 copies. (This was before Nielsen counted streaming toward Billboard chart totals.)
2010: DAS sues Kesha for $14 million in unpaid commissions on work the company says it got Kesha after she ended their contract. They also sue Dr. Luke for $12 million for allegedly interfering in their partnership with Kesha.
2011, the deposition: It is revealed in the DAS case that Kesha allegedly alerted people involved in her career and personal life as early as 2005, shortly after signing her original deal, that Dr. Luke had “engaged in certain unethical and unlawful actions against her and that she did not want Gottwald to be part of her career going forward.” However, in a deposition for the DAS case that was partially unsealed in 2014 (and that Dr. Luke would eventually use against her), Kesha testifies under oath that “Dr. Luke never made sexual advances at me” or gave her drugs to force her to have sex. Lawyers for Kesha have since argued that Luke had “threatened her safety and livelihood” at the time of the deposition, which also included statements from Kesha’s mother that might have corroborated Kesha’s denial that Dr. Luke acted inappropriately. (Kesha was ultimately ordered to pay a little over half of the money DAS claimed it was owed.)
2011: Dr. Luke co-founds his own Sony imprint, Kemosabe, and is made CEO of the label. Kesha, still under contract with Luke’s KMI and RCA, is brought over to Kemosabe in the deal.
2012: Kesha and Luke’s musical relationship takes a turn for the worse. A New Yorker profile of the producer describes their work on her sophomore album Warrior as “strained,” with Kesha wanting to expand her range to her rock roots and Luke telling her to stick to pop-y club hits. Kesha tweets-and-deletes later in the year that she was “forced” to sing the lyrics on “Die Young,” which faced backlash after the Newtown massacre. She later hints to Rolling Stone that she doesn’t have creative control over her music.
January: Kesha checks into a Chicago rehab facility for 30 days to treat an eating disorder. Her mother later gives an interview blaming Luke for pressuring Kesha to lose weight, which Luke denies. While in rehab, she reportedly “spontaneously” tells doctors that Luke sexually and physically abused her, and also drugged her. After completing treatment, she drops the dollar sign from her name and asks to professionally go by Kesha. “I took out the $ because I realized that was part of the façade,” she recently said of the decision. “It was a journey and I’m happy — that was me in that part of my life. But then I turned a corner.”
October 14, the bombshell lawsuit: Kesha files an explosive lawsuit against Dr. Luke in California claiming sexual assault and battery, including one aforementioned incident (the Nicky Hilton party) where he allegedly forced her to take date-rape drugs and sexually abused her afterward, and another where he “violently thrashed his arms at her,” which led her to run barefoot down the Pacific Coast Highway to escape. The lawsuit also accused Luke of long-term emotional and psychological abuse involving fat-shaming. Kesha claims that Luke’s treatment has caused her “severe depression, post-traumatic stress, social isolation, and panic attacks.” She requests in her lawsuit to be released from her record deal with Dr. Luke, claiming his alleged actions are a breach of contract. No criminal charges are filed.
October 14: That same day, Luke files his own countersuit in New York against Kesha, her mother, Pebe, and manager Jack Rovner for defamation. He denies all allegations in Kesha’s lawsuit and claims it is a ploy to extort him, noting that she testified in 2011 that none of these allegations ever happened.
October 29: Luke files a separate defamation lawsuit against Kesha’s mother, Pebe, in Tennessee, where she lives, in case she tries to argues he has no jurisdiction over her in New York.
December 2: During a radio interview, Lady Gaga says an unnamed music producer sexually assaulted her when she was 19. Kesha’s former lawyer Mark Geragos suggests on Twitter that Gaga was talking about Dr. Luke, which both Gaga and Luke deny. Still, Geragos claims he’ll depose Gaga for Kesha’s lawsuit about her claims. Luke responds by filing a defamation lawsuit against Geragos, which is still ongoing.
December 3: Kesha’s mom countersues Dr. Luke for causing her PTSD and says she’s had to be medicated due to the stress of his alleged abuse against her daughter and the subsequent lawsuit.
June 10: Kesha adds Sony to her original lawsuit against Dr. Luke, arguing that her parent label had knowledge of and enabled Luke’s alleged abuse for years and “turned a blind eye to it.” She claims Sony put Kesha in “physical danger” by allowing her to work with Luke and that at least one other unnamed Sony artist was a victim of Luke’s alleged abuse.
June 17: A judge halts Kesha’s California lawsuit at the request of Luke over a dispute involving a clause in her contract with Luke’s Kemosabe Records, which states that all legal issues must be resolved in New York. Kesha argues that she signed the deal in California and that the alleged abuse outlined in her suit occurred in California.
September: Kesha files an emergency preliminary injunction request in New York court to be released from her record contract with Luke, claiming her career will suffer “irreparable harm” if she must wait until her sexual-assault lawsuit is ruled on in order to be able to record new music without his involvement. She also requests that the court expedite its decision on her original lawsuit. Sony speaks out for the first time, saying the label feels “caught in the crossfire” and wants Kesha’s lawsuit against Sony and Kemosabe dismissed. They call her suit a “transparent and misguided attempt to renegotiate her contracts.”
February 6: Luke’s defamation lawsuits against Kesha’s mom Pebe Sebert and manager Jack Rovner are dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction. Days earlier, Pebe tweets that Luke is allegedly refusing to pay Kesha, her songwriters, and producers because Pebe “told the truth about him.” She also claims Luke forced her to give up songwriting credit on Kesha’s last big hit, Pitbull’s “Timber.”
February 19, the injunction loss: In a devastating blow to Kesha’s freedom, a New York judge denies Kesha’s preliminary injunction to be released from her recording contract with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records. The judge rules that “there has been no showing of irreparable harm” and notes that Sony and Luke have permitted Kesha to record new music without the direct involvement of Luke. Kesha’s lawyers had argued this was an “illusory promise” and that Sony and Luke would not promote her music, which Sony denied. “You’re asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry,” the judge says. Kesha is seen sobbing in court, while dozens of fans from the #FreeKesha movement, started in the wake of her lawsuit, rally for her outside the courthouse.
February 21–25: Kesha receives an outpouring of support from other musicians and celebrities. Taylor Swift donates $250,000 to help assist with Kesha’s legal bills; Jack Antonoff offers to produce for her and either leak it or “wait on it till that creep can’t block you anymore”; Lena Dunham writes a letter of support for Kesha and other victims of sexual abuse; Adele gives Kesha a shout-out during her Brit Awards speech; Lady Gaga personally meets with Kesha and warns the public not to victim-shame Kesha for going public about her abuse.
February 22: Dr. Luke speaks publicly for the first time about Kesha’s lawsuit without going through lawyers. He tweets his innocence, saying he “didn’t rape Kesha and have never had sex with her” and that she was “like my little sister.” He maintains Kesha and her mom are “motivated by money.”
February 24: Kesha writes an emotional letter thanking her fans for their continued support. She also responds to Dr. Luke’s extortion claims, saying “This case has never been about a renegotiation of my record contract — it was never about getting a bigger, or a better deal. This is about being free from my abuser. I would be willing to work with Sony if they do the right thing and break all ties that bind me to my abuser.”
February 25: Fans plan to protest Sony’s New York City headquarters in response to the label’s refusal to free Kesha. However, Sony shares a statement saying it is “not in a position to terminate the contractual relationship between Luke and Kesha” because their agreement exists outside Sony’s purview.
March 7: Kelly Clarkson offers more support to Kesha, telling a radio host she was “blackmailed” by her record label (a Sony subsidiary) into working with Dr. Luke on “Since U Been Gone” and “My Life Would Suck Without You,” or they would not have released her albums. She describes Luke as “not a good guy,” but does not speak to the specific allegations Kesha has made against him.
March 21, the appeal: Kesha officially appeals the judge’s decision to deny her injunction for freedom from her recording contract. She says the ruling upholds a form of “slavery” in forcing her to work for a company and a man she no longer wants to have anything to do with.
April 3: Kesha reveals on Instagram that Dr. Luke offered her a deal to release her from her record contract if she agreed to recant the accusations of rape made in her sexual-assault lawsuit. Kesha refuses the deal, saying she “would rather let the truth ruin my career than lie for a monster ever again.”
April 6: A New York judge throws out Kesha’s counterclaims of abuse against Dr. Luke, disputing Kesha’s argument in her injunction appeal that the terms of Kesha’s agreement with Sony and Dr. Luke are a form of slavery. The judge states Kesha is acting “unreasonably” and that “every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime.” The judge also cited a lack of jurisdiction and evidence.
April-May: Kesha begins to rebuild her career, performing at Coachella and Dylan Fest, and releasing a song with Zedd. She also announces a tour with Major Lazer.
April 27: Kesha’s mom drops her countersuit filed in 2014 against Dr. Luke.
May 3: Kesha follows her mother in removing Mark Geragos from her legal representation.
May 22: Kesha wins her fight to perform at the Billboard Music Awards after Dr. Luke and Kemosabe attempted to block her from singing on the show. They allow it on the grounds that Kesha can’t mention Luke or the lawsuit.
August 1, Kesha drops her lawsuit: After nearly two years caught in a legal quagmire, Kesha drops her stalled California abuse lawsuit against Dr. Luke. She instead delivers 28 songs to her label, which she says she financed completely by herself, and puts sole focus on her New York case to be released from her contract. She later describes the situation surrounding new music as songs that are just “sitting somewhere waiting to be completed and polished and released”; Luke disputes the claim, saying Kesha “exiled herself.”
September 1: Dr. Luke sues Kesha’s mom for a second time, claiming she didn’t allow him to amend his original suit with new complaints, but has continued to make defamatory comments about his alleged abuse.
January 31: Dr. Luke threatens to sue Kesha for defamation over a text she allegedly sent to Lady Gaga the week after Kesha lost her injunction claiming Luke raped another artist. In a separate filing, Kesha accuses Luke of being unsupportive of her music and refusing to approve any songs, a release date, or agree to promote it. She claims Luke has financially cut her off and still not paid her royalties from “Timber.”
February 15: Kesha releases emails allegedly from Dr. Luke that she says support her claims that he emotionally abused her. In the emails, Luke appears to intimidate Kesha into dieting, saying, “A-list songwriters and producers are reluctant to give Kesha their songs because of her weight.” Luke claims the emails are taken out of context.
March 10: Lawyers for Dr. Luke move to subpoena Kesha fan Michael Eisele, who runs a Kesha fan account on Twitter and helped organize #FreeKesha protests. They claim Eisele “closely coordinated” with Kesha to spread “defamatory statements and tarnish Luke’s reputation.”
March 21: A judge rejects Kesha’s amended countersuit against Dr. Luke — in which she sought freedom from her record deal for a third time — claiming Kesha didn’t give appropriate notice to void her songwriting contract. For that reason, the judge says Kesha can’t get out of her contract under the argument that Luke “breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing” by allegedly abusing her. Kesha’s latest additions noted that Dr. Luke’s contract with Sony was coming to an end, which would put the fate of her new music in jeopardy, but the judge dismisses that claim as “too speculative.” The judge appears to imply that Kesha should’ve known that signing with Luke put her at risk: “With respect to the Prescription Agreement, signed in November 2008, Gottwald’s allegedly abusive behavior was foreseeable.” Another blow: The judge also shoots down Kesha’s attempt to use a California labor law to argue that her contract should’ve been terminated after seven years, because the suits are being battled in New York court.
April 25: Dr. Luke exits as CEO of Kemosabe Records at Sony after six years. He claims to still maintain a “relationship” with Sony, though the details are unknown.
June 23: Dr. Luke’s Tennessee defamation lawsuit against Kesha’s mother, originally filed in 2014, is dismissed. In a joint statement, Sebert says she “admits she has no firsthand personal knowledge of the events occurring on the night of the alleged rape.”
July 6: Kesha releases her first solo song since the lawsuit, “Praying,” on Kemosabe Records. She also announces her third album Rainbow will finally be released this summer.
July 30: Dr. Luke subpoenas Lady Gaga in his defamation case over the alleged texts Kesha sent her accusing him of raping another artist. According to Luke’s team, the texts Gaga provided were “so heavily redacted it was incomprehensible.” Gaga hits back, saying in a statement that “Dr. Luke’s team is attempting to manipulate the truth and draw press attention to their case by exaggerating Lady Gaga‘s role and falsely accusing her of dodging reasonable requests.”
August 8: Vulture reports that Dr. Luke will likely stand to profit from Kesha’s new album. The New York Times adds that Luke will “pursue the equivalent producer royalties in court” from the album, rather than have Kesha uphold the clause in her contract that states Luke must produce at least six songs on any album she releases.
August 11: Kesha’s third album, Rainbow, and first since her legal showdown with Dr. Luke began, three years ago, is released, on Kemosabe/RCA. Dr. Luke’s defamation lawsuits against Kesha and Geragos, Kesha’s countersuit, and part of Kesha’s injunction appeal are still ongoing.
August 15: Lady Gaga agrees to testify in Luke’s defamation case and provide unredacted copies of the texts Kesha sent her. The deposition will happen in September.
October 5: In an interview with the New York Times, Pink says she will never work with Dr. Luke again. “I know that regardless of whether or not Dr. Luke did that, this is his karma and he earned it because he’s not a good person,” she says. Her comments are in solidarity with those of Kelly Clarkson, who also said she refuses to work with Dr. Luke in the future.
January 28: Kesha gives a powerful performance of “Praying” on the Grammys stage. The live musical moment felt particularly poignant against the backdrop of the Time’s Up movement, which Janelle Monáe invoked when introducing Kesha, whose legal battle with Dr. Luke is ongoing.
May 29: In a major setback to Kesha’s fight to be freed from her record deal with Dr. Luke, a New York appeals court sides with a previous judge who ruled that Kesha is not permitted to make any further appeals to be released from her contract in a court case pertaining to Dr. Luke’s defamation lawsuit against her.
June 13: The previously redacted text exchange between Kesha and Lady Gaga is released as part of a series of court documents filed by Dr. Luke in his defamation case against Kesha. According to the documents, in a text to Lady Gaga on February 16, 2016, Kesha reportedly accused Luke of raping Katy Perry in addition to alleging that she had also been raped by the producer. Luke’s filing claims, “Following this text message conversation, and with [Kesha’s] encouragement, [Lady Gaga] spread negative messages about [Luke] in the press and on social media.” In July 2017, Gaga complied to a subpoena from Luke to turn over the unredacted texts. The new court documents disclose that Perry had also given a deposition regarding the text conversation. Dr. Luke’s legal team later issues the following statement: “Katy Perry herself confirmed that Dr. Luke did not rape her. Kesha’s accusation to the contrary — just like her other outrageous lies about Dr. Luke — is baseless and irresponsible, and it is disrespectful to both Katy Perry and Dr. Luke.”
June 15: Kesha’s lawyers attempt to clarify the source of the Katy Perry sexual-assault allegation, claiming an unnamed record-label head had initially told both Kesha and Lady Gaga about the assault. With regard to the text exchange between Kesha and Gaga on the subject, Kesha’s legal team tells Variety, “It would have remained completely private, except that Dr. Luke and his team took an email obtained only in discovery and decided to publish it to millions of people in his amended complaint against Kesha, and then claim reputational harm from his own widespread publication.” Dr. Luke’s legal representation promptly responds with a statement denying that the label CEO accused Dr. Luke of rape, concluding with a line from Sir Walter Scott’s 1808 poem “Marmion.” They altered the excerpt to target Kesha, with the bolded portion original to the team’s legal statement: “As the old and true adage goes: Oh what a tangled web you weave when first you practice to deceive.”
August 21: After learning that a judge was prepared to release her deposition in Dr. Luke’s defamation case against Kesha, Katy Perry’s lawyer files an emergency motion requesting to seal the deposition. According to court documents, Perry’s lawyer writes that Perry is “vulnerable to ‘gossip column’ frenzy” and that her testimony should remain private because it is “not germane to the public” and “tangential” to the case.
August 27: Katy Perry’s deposition is released along with a number of other testimonies from Dr. Luke’s ongoing defamation lawsuit against Kesha. According to the heavily redacted deposition, given in 2017, Perry denies that she had ever been sexually assaulted by Luke, an accusation Kesha and Lady Gaga attributed to an unnamed music label CEO. Court documents identify the CEO as Interscope Geffen A&M Records exec John Janick, who says he does not recall hearing or spreading rumors about Perry experiencing any assault. However, Gaga maintains in her deposition that Janick brought up the rumor to both she and Kesha during a meeting. Following the release of Perry’s previously sealed deposition, Dr. Luke’s legal team issues a statement claiming Kesha’s allegation against the producer is part of a “malicious” design “to destroy Dr. Luke’s business and reputation.”
November 30: Recently released court documents reveal a text exchange from February 2016 in which Kesha and Lady Gaga called Katy Perry “mean.” According to the text conversation, Kesha was upset with Perry for not coming forward about the allegation that she had been raped by Dr. Luke, and sent Gaga this message: “I need to find sympathy and empathy for her. she’s so mean. it’s hard.” Gaga replied, “Do u want me to see if I can talk to her? I know she’s mean.” Gaga tweets the following to address the released texts:
January 30: Lady Gaga defends Kesha in her legal battle with Dr. Luke in a recently unsealed deposition, which took place in September 2017. According to the deposition, Gaga was in tears during the testimony, which her lawyer attributes to the singer experiencing PTSD from her own sexual abuse. Gaga began the deposition by recounting how she had first met Kesha in Dr. Luke’s home studio and that Kesha had been in the back room wearing only her underwear. She cited the encounter when asked by Dr. Luke’s lawyers if she believed the accusations of assault tarnished his reputation. “So if you are asking what my view is of his reputation, I made my view of him and his reputation when I saw her in that back room,” Gaga said. “That was an image that — of something that happened to me, and I felt and knew in my heart that she was telling the truth, and I believe her.”
June 3: Kesha releases “Rich, White, Straight, Men,” her first song of 2019, on YouTube.
October 21: Kesha shares the trailer for her fourth album, High Road, noting that the project has a more positive outlook than 2017’s Rainbow. “When I wrote Rainbow, I was in a very different headspace. I had to address some very serious things,” the singer says in the trailer. “But now, on my new record, I revisit my roots of pure and utter debaucherous joy. Kesha got her balls back and they’re bigger than ever.”
January 31: Kesha’s fourth album, High Road, is released on Kemosabe/RCA. She serves as executive producer on the exuberant project and is set to promote her new songs on a cross-country tour in the spring.
February 6: Reigniting the case and delivering Kesha a severe blow, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Schecter rules that Kesha defamed Dr. Luke in a February 2016 text exchange with Lady Gaga in which Kesha alleged that Luke had raped Katy Perry. In the court decision, Schecter writes, “Kesha made a false statement to Lady Gaga about Gottwald that was defamatory per se. There is no evidence whatsoever that Gottwald raped Katy Perry. Moreover, publication of a false statement to even one person, here Lady Gaga, is sufficient to impose liability.” Schecter also orders that Kesha pay Dr. Luke over $373,000 in royalties. Kesha’s legal team plans to appeal Schecter’s ruling.
April 6: Kesha’s lawyer files papers in the Manhattan Supreme Court, arguing that New York’s anti-SLAPP free-speech law should be applied to her case, “Page Six” reports. The law is designed to prevent wealthy people from filing frivolous lawsuits to intimidate and stifle free speech (SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Under the law, signed by Andrew Cuomo in November 2020, if suits are found to be “initiated in bad faith — encouraging only meritorious litigation,” defendants must be awarded the cost of associated legal fees. While legal battles so far have revolved around whether Dr. Luke qualifies as a public figure, this legislation requires even private-figure plaintiffs to prove actual malice on issues of public concern.
April 22: A New York appellate court upholds the lower-court ruling from 2020 that Dr. Luke is not a public figure. Two of the seven judges dissent on the grounds that he “is, at minimum, a limited-purpose public figure.” The court also affirms that Kesha’s text to Lady Gaga was a defamatory statement, and that Kesha can be held liable for statements made by her lawyer and press agent.