Universal Music Must Face Lawsuit Over Bob Marley Remixes

Reggae Musician Bob Marley
Bob Marley and the Wailers catapulted Jamaica’s reggae music to the international stage in the 1973 with their album “Catch A Fire.” Photographer: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group Inc. must face claims that it tried to block a music production company from distributing its remixes of early Bob Marley songs, a federal appeals court in California ruled.

Universal won dismissal of the claims brought by Rock River Communications Inc. after arguing to a lower court that the distributor had to prove it was legally authorized to use the music on its album. Universal couldn’t have interfered if the album violated copyright laws, the company said. Universal is only half right, a three-judge appeals panel ruled today.

“UMG cannot obtain summary judgment based on the holes in Rock River’s claim to a valid license when the validity of UMG’s own licensing rights is equally spotty,” the court ruled.

The case involves licensing rights for early musical recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Rock River sued in 2008 accusing Universal of strong-arming its plans to release an album called “Roots, Rock, Remixed” that included 12 versions of popular Marley songs including “Lively Up Yourself.” Universal claimed to have purchased exclusive rights to the music in 2003 from a company called JAD Records, according to court documents.

Rock River’s obtained its license to sample 16 musical recordings by the group from San Juan Music Group Ltd., which had licensed music since 1980 through an agreement with former Marley producer Lee Perry, according to court documents.

Marketplace ‘Confusion’

“When the music was initially recorded in Jamaica in the 1960s, record keeping was not a primary concern,” the appeals court said in its ruling. “The absence of legal documentation has led to confusion in the marketplace as to which entities own licensing rights for these recordings.”

UMG’s transmission of cease-and-desist letters in 2007, an action that prompted Rock River’s suit, could be viewed by a reasonable jury as the company’s attempt to enforce its claim to exclusive licensing rights through a “threat of litigation” rather than actual litigation, the appeals court said in its ruling. The court noted that despite San Juan’s long history “openly licensing” Marley recordings, neither Universal or JAD ever sued that company for infringement.

Marley and the Wailers catapulted Jamaica’s reggae music to the international stage in the 1973 with their album “Catch A Fire.” The same year, “Burnin’” was released, which included “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” The song “Lively Up Yourself” is featured on their 1974 album “Natty Dread.” Marley died of cancer in 1981 at age 36.

Officials at Universal Music weren’t immediately available for comment.

The case is Rock River Communications Inc. Universal Music Group Inc., 11-57168, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Pasadena).

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