Nina Simone's Heirs Allege Sony Music Operates a Piracy Ring

Eighty albums of recorded Nina Simone performances are said in new court papers to have been put on iTunes and other digital venues without authorization.
Associated Press

An old dispute over Nina Simone song rights that seemingly found resolution last autumn has escalated for the second time this month with an allegation that Sony Music is now the proud owner of "one of the largest pirates in the recorded music industry in America."

That would be Orchard, a distributor of independent recordings which feeds tunes to Apple's iTunes store, Google Play and Amazon.com, among others. Sony fully acquired Orchard in a $200 million deal in March.

As previously covered, Simone rights have been the subject of extensive litigation over the years — especially between Steven Ames Brown, an attorney who represented Simone, and Andrew Stroud, Simone's former husband, manager and producer. In the midst of the fighting, Sony got involved because its predecessor RCA had contracts with the singer that date back to 1966.

Last October, Sony Music, Brown and the Simone estate reached a deal at a settlement conference, but two weeks ago, Sony Music filed a claim in court to rescind the agreement because the other parties allegedly didn't lived up to their side of the bargain. Among other things, Sony said that Brown was taking the position that only reproduction rights had been given to Sony, potentially limiting its exploitation of the singer's music.

On Wednesday, Brown and the Simone estate hit back with claims against Sony and Orchard over more than 80 albums of recorded Nina Simone performances that have been uploaded to digital outlets without authorization.

Brown appears to be alleging that Orchard has gotten its hands on bootlegs of Nina Simone performances and that Sony has decided to look the other way. Orchard is being sued for copyright infringement while Sony is being attacked for allegedly breaching an implied covenant not to do harm to Simone's income from her official albums.

According to his legal papers, "By operating a subsidiary that massively pirates Nina Simone recordings, at price points generally lower than those at which Sony sells her RCA recordings, [this] has the natural tendency to displace Sony's sales, thereby depriving Claimants of the full royalties they would otherwise earn under the New Artist Agreement."

Brown and the Simone estate have lodged an additional eyebrow-raiser in the court papers over Sony's authorization of tribute albums — or how "Simone's name and likeness" is being used for "recordings made by other recording artists." They allege this has also harmed sales of Simone albums.

Brown and the Simone estate are demanding an injunction that would prohibit Orchard from exploiting Simone's music, a declaration that Sony can't enjoy anything of the $84 million judgment against Stroud's estate, and additional general and exemplary damages over a claim that Sony has breached contract. (How Sony is allegedly breaching contract is subject to much redaction after a judge permitted Sony to redact information about the October settlement.)

Sony decided not to comment on the allegation it owns a pirate shop.

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