Well, a federal court in Los Angeles may need to get up and stand up for a new music-related trial because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has fought for the right of Rock River Communications Inc. to get reconsidered its claims against Universal Music Group Inc. over a remix of early recordings by reggae giant Bob Marley and the Wailers.
The appellate court remanded this lawsuit, reversing the lower court’s dismissal of the case on summary judgment, partly because U.S. Judge Raymond C. Fisher found a lack of clarity as to who exactly owns the rights to songs including Lively Up Yourself, which was featured in the soundtrack of the recent film Dear John.
Rock River produces, sells and distributes music. In 2006, the firm entered into a licensing agreement with San Juan Music Group Ltd., which, in exchange for a fee, granted Rock River a nonexclusive license to “sample” or “interpolate” 16 Marley-Wailers songs. San Juan is a music licensing company. Since 1980, it had licensed Marley’s music under an agreement with Lee Perry, who produced many of the Jamaican legend’s early recordings. Rock River further entered into an agreement for a remixed version of Lively Up Yourself.
But Universal, the music industry behemoth, claimed it had bought exclusive licensing rights for Marley’s tunes from JAD Records in 2003. Universal began calling and writing Rock River’s business partners, saying its album violated UMG exclusive licensing rights. This campaign, Rock River asserts, caused others qualms about Lively in the Dear John film and soundtrack; Apple yanked the company’s Roots, Rock, Remixed album from the iTunes store. Rock River’s distributors halted the album’s distribution.
In its suit, Rock River claimed intentional interference with prospective economic advantage under California law, asserting that Universal wrongly blocked it from distributing its album of Marley remixes, threatening to sue plaintiff’s distributors. Universal persuaded a district court that unless Rock River could prove its chain of licensing rights was valid, starting back first with the musicians and producers, UMG could not be liable on the interference claims, because there is no liability for interference with an invalid business expectancy. The appellate court disagreed, finding the defendant must prove the invalidity or illegality of the business expectancy as an affirmative defense.
The higher court did affirm that there were genuine issues of fact for a trial court to consider, partly because of historic confusion and a dearth of credible materials to establish who owns rights to Marley’s early work. Fisher rejected Universal’s notion that it should be granted summary judgment of this case on a Noerr-Pennington doctrine defense, the contention that pre-litigation material is immune from suit unless the threatened action was a “sham” — both objectively baseless (no reasonable litigant realistically could expect to succeed on merits) and an attempt to interfere directly with the business relationship of a competitor via governmental process (threat of a formal court filing like a suit). Fisher also upheld Universal’s claim of attorney-client privilege for 200 or so documents that Rock River sought because it said these would buttress its case; that claim seemed “based on little more than unfounded suspicion,” Fisher said.
In case the legal specifics here have enveloped your consciousness in a haze thicker than what typically hung over Marley’s dreadlocks and his ganja-loving audience, Lively Up Yourself, mon: