The family of the late Bob Marley, the best selling reggae artist of all time and father to Stephen, Damien, Ziggy, and a gaggle of others, lost their fight for the copyrights to some of their patriarch’s best known records. The Marley family had sought royalties from five records by the Marley-fronted Wailers (Catch a Fire, Burnin’, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibrations and Exodus) from the period of 1973 to 1977 when they were on Island records (the lawsuit does not make clear why royalties were not sought for albums released under the same agreement after that date). New York judge Denise Cote ruled the records were “works made for hire” (works created by an employee for an employer that designate the employer as the legal author as opposed to the artist who created them) and awarded ownership of the copyrights to Universal Music Group, who own the Island imprint.
Rita and her nine children claimed that the ownership of the renewal term copyrights reverted back to them when Bob died in 1981 (as would be the case with works not made for hire) and that Universal breached the contract by failing to properly account for royalties. The Marleys were suing Universal Music Group for royalties from the 2001-2005 period, with major points of contention being the royalties from digital downloads (Eminem’s producers won a digital download dispute earlier this month against Apple and Universal) and Universal’s granting of unauthorized licenses.
The language of the contract seemed a little strict, with Island including provisions that allowed them to dictate the time and place of any recording session and required Bob to perform “to the best of his skill” whenever, and wherever, called upon. The agreement also granted them approval of all of Marley’s music and lyrics and ownership of the recordings. Now, had Marley delivered an album that Island decided lacked commercial potential, he could repay Island for the recording sessions and release the album with someone else (though that record would not count towards those owed to Island by Bob under the contract). This was back in 1972 and Bob was an artist of colour in an unproven genre, so it’s not terribly shocking that a label would take advantage. It must be noted, however, that Marley signed nearly identical contracts with Island in 1974 and 1975. The 1975 agreement gave him the right to dictate the time and place of the recording sessions, at the very least, but Island still retained ownership of the recordings and approval of the music and lyrics.
When you consider the facts of the contracts, they are terribly one-sided agreements where Marley had his work exploited for a fraction of what it brings in (Bob Marley and the Wailers have sold nearly 17 million records in the US alone). The decision is disheartening as the courts have been known in the past to side with the exploited artist and cancel unfair contracts even in the event they were signed willingly. While the language of the contract does appear like a “work made for hire”, certainly the spirit of good business would lean towards declaring it an unfair agreement in a recent trend towards artists rights. With the burden of proof being on the Marley family, it appears as though their arguments weren’t enough to persuade the judge to make a moral judgement even though Island did not contribute so much as direction to the creative process.
Universal outdid themselves in the counterclaim by asserting that in the event the Marleys were successful in regaining the renewal rights, they then would be liable to Universal for any and all court costs and expenses as well as numerous other costs and liabilities. While I understand that the contracts were signed by a grown man with free will, I’m a lousy Canadian socialist who would like to see some fairness brought into the industry. I would, however, gladly settle for any little measure of balance between the artists and corporations. Historically, Universal has reportedly taken advantage of artists, so I’d settle for anything that takes them down a peg. With this judgement, Universal maintains renewal rights to the copyrights for 67 years after the records were first released.
On a related note, the Marleys pursued this lawsuit under the name of their “Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Limited” which, interestingly, was sued earlier this year in a copyright case where artist Jürek Zamoyski claimed that the Marley estate was using three images that Zamoyski created in the mid-nineties without proper compensation. Fifty-Six Hope claimed to have a valid license agreement with Zamoyski’s business partner, Richard Rogala, that granted them ownership of the images in 1995. The Marley were eventually successful in having the suit dismissed, but I’d wager that they would have rather used their win on this one.
Bob Marley died on May 11th, 1981 in Miami, Florida from skin cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain and received a state funeral in Jamaica. His last words, spoken to his son Ziggy, were “Money can’t buy life”.
Below are examples of some of the music in dispute: