Verizon fired up over Marley ringtones

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The lawsuits haven't even been filed yet, but already the dispute over Bob Marley's ringtones is heating up.

Last month, Verizon Wireless struck an exclusive licensing deal with Universal Music Group for the entire Bob Marley catalog. The Marley family, through its Fifty Six Hope Road Music company, threatened to sue, claiming that the deal represents an endorsement of Verizon by the late singer.

Verizon last week removed the offending ringtones but grew angry when Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records (now owned by UMG) and adviser to the Marleys, issued a statement claiming that Verizon "ceded to the Marley family estate demands."

In response, Verizon added the ringtones back. At press time, they were not available via Verizon's Web site but can be found and downloaded via the mobile phone. A Verizon spokeswoman said the company initially removed the content to let UMG and the Marley estate reach an agreement but reversed course after the Blackwell statement.

As a result of the initial takedown, however, Verizon has now lost its exclusive on the Marley content. Sources said Verizon had a 30-day exclusive on the ringtones, ringback tones and other mobile content gained through the agreement. That exclusive term has not yet expired, but UMG issued a statement saying that it would make the disputed Marley ringtones available to other U.S. operators as well. Those ringtones have shipped and should be available to purchase as early as this week.

What that means for the deal between Verizon and UMG is not clear. Usually, operators either pay cash or provide in-kind promotion for labels in return for an exclusive. Sources said UMG will not reimburse Verizon in any way for ending the exclusive early, citing Verizon's voluntary decision to remove the ringtones.

The origin of the dispute can be tracked back to March, when Verizon refused to enter into an endorsement agreement with the Marley estate when Blackwell asked for $1 million.

"I am infuriated that Verizon would go around the estate and initiate partnership with Universal Music Group," Blackwell said. "We cannot and will not allow Bob Marley's name and likeness to be used in such a manner without the authorization of the family."

Should the lawsuits proceed, it will raise an interesting issue over whether the use of an artist's image to promote mobile content in fact amounts to an endorsement. UMG feels it does not.

"We are disappointed that the management of the Marley estate has chosen to take such an extreme and meritless position that a customary promotional campaign highlighting the availability of Marley mastertones somehow constitutes an 'endorsement' of Verizon overall," the company said.

The issue adds to another ringtone dispute still making its way through the courts. Several artists, including the Allman Brothers and Cheap Trick, filed a class-action suit against Sony BMG claiming that they should get half of revenue gained from all digital downloads — including master ringtones — as is usual with a music licensing deal, rather than the much lower sale percentage that differs by contract. Tom Waits' Third Story Music filed a similar suit against Warner Music Group.

Antony Bruno is a contributor to Billboard.
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