The legal battle between George Michael and Sony Music is heating up, with attorneys for the music giant preparing to challenge a recent U.K. court ruling ordering the label to provide Michael’s attorneys with recording contracts of superstar acts Michael Jackson, Bruce Springteen and Barbra Streisand. Public disclosure of the contracts could prove costly to the label and embarrassing to artists when their deals are compared.
Michael is suing the label to extricate himself from his Sony U.K. recording pact, claiming the terms are unfair for an artist of his stature and pale by comparison to agreements given acts signed in the U.S. A review of the superstar agreements, Michael’s attorneys argued, would prove the label did not negotiate in good faith.
Sony spin doctors initially denied the existence of the order, claiming the hearing never took place. When Michael representatives fired off a missive about the ruling, Sony denials turned to terse “no comments.”
While many in the entertainment industry’s legal community doubt that any significant information will be gleaned from the documents if they are made public, lawyers agree the release of the documents could prove embarrassing for the artists and top Sony exex.
“If the agreements do get released, I think we’ll see that they are not all they’re cracked up to be,” said attorney Don Engel, who represents Don Henley in the singer’s lawsuit against Geffen Records. Engel notes that attorneys representing talent at that level are already familiar with the deal points of most superstar contracts as a matter of practice.
But the fireworks could come when artists see how they fare against each other in perks and items covered under a most-favored-nations clause, a key point in the Michael lawsuit.
Such a clause is supposed to guarantee artists uniform treatment on specific items. But a label will sometimes use the clause to cover an item for one act that they may not cover for another, or using the clause “to disguise a higher royalty rate as something else,” according to Engel. These revelations could be insulting to artists and prove costly for Sony if artists demand identical terms.
Contracts for Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones (before their Virgin deal) and Rob Halford of Judas Priest were included in the order.
Attorney Gary Stiffleman said he doubts that the agreements will be made public, unless they are somehow leaked. But if they are publicized, said Stiffleman, lawyer for Prince, “artists all over town will be calling their lawyers demanding similar provisions be added to their contracts.”
“One superstar may object to another superstar’s deal, but the things that may seem revelatory (to the public) are not really,” Stiffleman said.
Historically U.S. courts have supported such orders, and it is considered unlikely that the U.S. court will block the U.K. court’s order, even after a hearing.
“If (Sony lawyers) are concerned about confidentiality, I am sure we could work out (a way) that would be accomplished,” said attorney Leonard Marks, whose N.Y.-based firm is responsible for securing the documents from Sony for the U.K. court. “But I suspect that is not all (Sony is) concerned with and will stall and resist to everyextent possible.”
Sony lawyers could not be reached for comment. But a source close to the defense case admitted the lawyers will aggressively challenge the order as top Sony exex have told the team the agreements are “never to see the light of day.”
A Sony spokesperson declined comment.