Bob Marley rights dispute shows just how complex music law is

Stand up for your rights. Monosnaps, CC BY-NC-SA

At least one of the many confusions surrounding Bob Marley was resolved last week in the High Court of Justice in London. A company called Cayman Music failed to obtain a declaration that they, not Blue Mountain Music, owned the rights to Marley’s songs.

The difficulties of the case were not only caused by the fact that the historical background went back to 1968, but because there were an inordinate amount of people, companies and transfers of rights involved.

What can be learned from this case is that intellectual property (whether it may be music, art or else) generate incredibly complex obligations and rights which can be worth substantial amount of money. So negotiations need to be particularly thorough, something which perhaps failed to be done here.

Additionally, this case shows that a contract is unlikely to be interpreted against its apparent meaning. In other words, arguing that an asset was transferred to another contract in error is unlikely to be accepted.

Both of these issues would appear to be quite straightforward and so unlikely to lead to any disputes. This case proves otherwise, and looking through the details of it provides a good example of quite how convoluted such cases can get.

It is important that to understand that intellectual property rights – the rights over intellectual creations – are sliced into different components and as result they can be commercially exploited independently. So for example, a song yields to rights over the actual composition (the lyrics) and the sound recordings of that song. A contract for the songwriting is called the “publishing agreement”, and for the produced version the “recording agreement”.

Bob Marley became famous by his association with John Nash and his recording company, CBS, with whom he initially had a contract for both recording and publishing. Upon termination of that contract, whether it was due to a breakdown of the relations or otherwise, in 1972 Marley was signed to Island Records – but only as a recording artist. He signed a publishing agreement with a company called CMI (Cayman Music Inc) in 1973. So the songwriting and producing rights over Marley’s songs had now been divided between two companies: CMI and Island Records.

Perhaps Marley predicted that he was about to compose his most famous songs (No Woman No Cry, Natty Dread, Rat Race, Rebel Music (Road Block) and Who the Cap Fit). Why else would he have misattributed them to friends and family? Because he attributed them to someone else, CMI would receive no payment for the success of the songs that their song-writing artist (Marley) had produced. It appears Marley shared the royalty payments with the alleged composers. And apparently the production company, Island Records, became aware of this situation but nevertheless paid the relevant fees to the apparent authors – not to CMI, as should have been the case.

Bob Marley without a will, adding further fuel to the fire. The first litigation chapter soon started, and predictably ended without a clear winner. Having discovered Marley’s misattribution, CMI claimed that they should be compensated by Marley’s estate and the alleged songwriters. The claim failed because it was filed too long after finding out about the infringement.

Until 1992, Island Records entered into various contracts with the estate and CMI to secure recording and publishing rights for all of Bob Marley’s music. Then, following an erroneous declaration that Island Records didn’t own the disputed songs from one of their representatives, CMI took the chance to try to sell the rights of these mis-attributed songs to BSI (yet another company).

So Island Records had been acting as legitimate owner of the rights of all of Marley’s songs, but CMI grabbed the opportunity of selling the rights of some of them (the misattributed ones) when it appeared that Island Records understood they weren’t the owners of those rights after all.

Once this factual background is understood, the legal dispute can be distilled down to one question: since the contracts signed between Island Records and CMI did not expressly refer to the misattributed songs, can the rights of them be said to have been transferred?

The judge ruled that the contract between CMI and Island Records, on the face of it, clearly intended to transfer all the rights on all of Marley’s songs. The judge reasoned that it would have made no sense for Island Records to buy all of the rights, but exclude those rights that CMI was disputing and could dispute again.

This small clarification doesn’t tell us much about Marley’s life, but it does reveal just how heated and complicated musical law can get. In any case, if you try to be clever with your intellectual property rights, make sure that at the end of the day you write a will explaining whose songs they are.