Class action is latest in a series of suits filed by heritage acts

In the latest legal conflict involving digital music royalties, members of the Temptations have filed a class action against Universal Music Group, alleging underpayment for downloads, ringtones and streamed music.

The suit, filed March 14 in federal court in Northern California on behalf of the group and like-situated performers, continues a series of actions filed by so-called heritage artists against the major labels.

Present breach of contract lawsuit, lodged by Temptations members Otis Williams and Ron Tyson, is the second filed by an act on Motown Records, whose catalog is controlled by UMG. Last April, the estate of the late funk star Rick James became the first to sue UMG claiming underpayment of digital royalties (Daily Variety, April 5, 2011).

Like the James suit, the Temptations’ action was prompted by a September 2010 appellate decision that overturned a jury verdict in a case brought against UMG and others by two firms active in rap star Eminem’s early career. The appeals panel ruled that digital downloads constituted licenses and not sales, and thus were subject to a higher royalty rate for third-party licenses on the works in question.

The Temptations were one of Motown’s biggest acts. Their pop and R&B hits of the ’60s and ’70s included such evergreens as “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” The vocal group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

Williams and Tyson’s action claims that under contracts executed in 1987 and 1993, the group was entitled to royalties of 50% for licenses of its work.

According to the suit, the Temptations were dramatically shortchanged on royalty payments, since monies derived from downloads, ringtones and streamed music were computed as sales, rather than licenses, by UMG.

Contractually, the group was entitled to smaller royalties on sales of 24%-28% under the 1987 agreement and 14%-16% under the 1993 pact, the suit says.

Like nearly all of the other suits against the major labels, the Temptations’ action specifically cites the 2010 appellate decision in F.B.T. Productions’ suit against Aftermath Records and UMG.

Since the filing by the James estate last year, acts as varied as Chuck D of Public Enemy, Peter Frampton, White Zombie and Dave Mason have lodged complaints against UMG, alleging similar underpayment of royalties.

A UMG spokesman could not be reached for comment. The company has consistently said it would defend itself vigorously against such actions, and that such claims were not appropriate for class treatment.

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