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Dr. Dre has emerged victorious in a lawsuit against WIDEawake Death Row Records, which put out a new version of his iconic album “The Chronic,” as well as a greatest hits collection, without his permission. Dre claimed that the digital release of his early work violated a fifteen-year-old contract that guided how such material would be presented to the public.
Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, has been battling Death Row, which he co-founded, for years.
In 1996, he split the label to set up a new shop at Interscope Records, and bought his freedom by disclaiming his ownership interest in both Death Row and the sound recordings he had produced there.
But Dre also didn’t want his legacy tarnished, so in a 1996 deal, he sought some measure of security in how Death Row presented his recordings by making the label agree not to distribute any of his songs except “in the manners heretofore distributed.”
In the years since Dre’s departure, Death Row has experienced some financial problems and later emerged under new corporate ownership. One of the first releases for the new WIDEawake Death Row Records was a digital re-issue of “The Chronic” as well as a greatest hits collection. Dre then sued.
The issue of artistic control and profit participation in digital releases of old work has been a sore subject for the past decade. Other artists such as Pink Floyd have sued, contending their works were only meant to be distributed as albums, not singles in venues like Apple’s iTunes. Some producers, like the one guiding Eminem‘s early career, have successfully argued they should be entitled to higher royalty rates from record labels for digital distribution of their work.
In Dre’s case, the issue turned on his artistic intention and an examination of contracts made during the formative period of his career. Arriving at a conclusion here wasn’t easy. Most of the agreements made between Dre and the folks running Death Row at the time were oral ones, subject to differing interpretation about what was said fifteen to twenty years ago.
A few months ago, a judge dismissed several of Dre’s claims — that the re-issue constituted trademark infringement, false endorsement, and a publicity rights violation — but the main claim over an alleged contract breach survived.
In a decision on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Snyder finds that the agreement not to distribute Dre’s songs except “in the manners heretofore distributed” unambiguously prohibited Death Row from re-issuing “The Chronic” in a new form, including as digital downloads.
The case now moves onto a question of damages. Judge Snyder agrees that Dre was forced to accept a reduced royalty rate for the re-issue than he normally would have accepted. She limits Dre’s award to “actual damages,” though. Just how much Dre is owed will be the subject of a jury trial, in all probability.
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