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Lady Marmalade co-writer sues Sony/ATV over royalties and rights ownership

By | Published on Tuesday 16 April 2019


One of the writers of ‘Lady Marmalade’ has sued Sony/ATV in a wide-ranging dispute over royalties, reporting and the ownership of a bunch of his works.

The Sony music publisher controls two sets of songs written or co-written by Kenny Nolan, even though he never directly did a deal with the company. He licensed the first set to his ‘Lady Marmalade’ co-writer Bob Crewe, who in turn did a deal with a company called Stone Diamond, whose rights ultimately ended up with Sony/ATV. The second set were part of a deal with a company called Coral Rock Music Corp, the songs catalogue of which likewise ended up in the control of the Sony/ATV business.

Nolan’s lawsuit contains an assortment of gripes about royalties not being accounted or paid, though the most interesting bit of the litigation – filed in the Californian courts last week – relates to the ownership of the first set of songs licensed to Crewe in the 1970s.

Prior to 1978, the copyright term for songs in the US wasn’t linked to anyone’s lifetime (so not the current ‘life of the creator plus 70 years’ system) but instead ran for a set period of time after publication. By the 1970s that was 75 years, but with a requirement to renew the copyright with the US Copyright Office after 28 years. Subsequent changes in the 1990s extended the copyright term of songs dating from this period to 95 years and also removed the requirement to formally renew, so that the copyright extended at 28 years by default.

The songs covered by Nolan’s deal with Crewe date from the early 1970s so are subject to those rules. And, crucially, Nolan argues that his agreement with Crewe only related to the first part of the copyright term – ie the initial 28 years – and not anything that followed. Which means the works would have reverted to him in the early 2000s.

The lawsuit states that the 1970s deal “did not include any valid unambiguous instrument of transfer executed by Nolan to Crewe [or] the defendants … of the renewal term of each copyright to each Nolan/Crewe composition”. To that end, among other things, Nolan is seeking judicial confirmation that he “is the sole owner of [his share of] the music publishing rights in the renewal term share of the Nolan/Crewe compositions”.

‘Lady Marmalade’ was made famous by Labelle in 1974, of course, and has been covered a number of times since, with the all-star version on the ‘Moulin Rouge’ soundtrack in 2002 achieving particular success. Other co-writes between Nolan and Crewe include Frankie Valli’s 1974 hit ‘My Eyes Adored You’.