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Estate wins $2 million for Bing Crosby royalties

Jury gives company partial victory in dispute with UMG

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded the company that holds Bing Crosby’s property rights more than $2 million in royalties from Universal Music Group on June 30, closing one chapter in a legal wrangle that has run more than a decade.

However, attorneys for HLC Inc., which administers the late singer’s rights, failed to convince jurors that Crosby’s UMG contract should be terminated, or that HLC should be awarded the vocalist’s master recordings.

The conflict between HLC and UMG is not over: In December, a suit filed in September 2009 over Crosby’s digital sales is scheduled for trial in L.A. Superior Court.

Ranked No. 1 among vocalists of the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era by chart researcher Joel Whitburn, Crosby, who died in 1977, tallied nearly 300 chart records between 1931 and 1954; his hits included “White Christmas,” generally acknowledged as the best-selling single of all time.

The award covers unpaid royalties on CDs issued by UMG, which holds masters dating back to Crosby’s work for Decca in the early ’30s.

During a three-and-a-half-week trial, attorneys for HLC successfully argued that a most favored nation clause in Crosby’s recording contract entitled him to higher CD royalty payments.

HLC first filed suit in July 2000; the trial consolidated two later complaints from 2003 and 2005.

The singer’s daughter Mary Crosby excoriated UMG in a sharply worded statement issued after the trial.

“Recording artists have a long history of being taken advantage of by their labels,” she said, “and despite the incredible contribution my father made to the world of music, he was no exception…It seems that record companies prefer to keep things in litigation for as long as possible because most people don’t have the resources to stick it out. This tactic generally works, because the majority of artists settle out of court for far less than they’re due.”

A UMG spokesman said the company had no comment.

HLC had also sought rescission of Crosby’s 1943 recording contract and termination of joint venture agreements from 1949 and 1956, and control of the 1,200 masters the singer cut for the UMG labels. HLC’s attorney Mark Brodka told Variety, “The jury answered in the negative on all counts.”

Crosby’s lawyers will next seek a piece of the digital pie. Though Der Bingle may be a figure from a now-distant pop past, Brodka claims that his music nonetheless accounted for some $1 million in downloads between 2004 and 2009.

The 2009 action alleges that UMG breached Crosby’s contract by offering his music as downloads and cellphone mastertones, and seeks all monies received by the company from those sales.

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