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Marley family lose Universal lawsuit

By | Published on Tuesday 14 September 2010

The family of Bob Marley has lost a legal action against Universal Music over the ownership of five of the late reggae star’s most legendary albums.

The musician’s widow Rita and nine of his children sued in relation to the copyrights in the master recordings of ‘Catch A Fire’, ‘Burnin’, ‘Natty Dread’, ‘Rastaman Vibrations’ and ‘Exodus’, all released by Island Records, now a Universal division, of course. They made various claims relating to the original contracts between Marley and Island, and subsequent arrangements made between Universal and the Marley estate, some relating to royalty payments and the right of veto over certain licensing arrangements, others to the nature of Universal’s claim of ownership of the recordings to start with.

On that latter point, a judge last week ruled conclusively in the record company’s favour, saying that, under the contracts Marley entered into in the 1970s, the recordings in question were “works made for hire” under the US copyright law of the time, and that Island Records (so, therefore, now Universal) were the designated owner.

New York Judge Denise Cote said: “Each of the agreements provided that the sound recordings were the ‘absolute property’ of Island”. One argument used to question the legitimacy of Universal’s ownership was that Marley probably would have made the albums with or without Island Records’ involvement. But Cote said that was irrelevant. Because Island’s contract gave them the right to accept or decline Marley’s output, and they accepted, ownership undisputedly lay with them.

Needless to say, Universal welcomed the ruling, the Marley family are yet to comment.