Jamaican Reggae legend Max Romeo has filed a lawsuit against Universal Music Group (UMG) and Polygram Records over unpaid royalties for two albums spanning back to 1976.
The lawsuit for breach of contract for unpaid royalties was filed in September at the Supreme Court in New York. According to his suit obtained by Urban Islandz, Romeo is an accomplished reggae artiste and songwriter whose music career took off in the 1960s, and his music has been extensively used and licensed in various works such as music by other artists, including Jay-Z and The Prodigy, used as soundtracks for film and television production and even in the popular video game, Grand Theft Auto.
The pleading outlines two main issues for the court to assess- a recording agreement made in 1976 and a songwriting agreement also made in 1976 from which certain amounts were agreed for royalty payments for two albums, War Ina Babylon and Reconstruction.
Both albums were successful, with the former considered one of the “greatest reggae albums of all time,” selling one (1) million copies. Songs from the album went on to be sampled by Jay-Z in 2003 in his song “Lucifer” (sampling Romeo’s “Chase The Devil.” The same song was also sampled by The Prodigy.
For the recording agreement, the artiste claims that the two defendants acquired rights to his music via a contract he initially signed with fellow reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry in 1976 to then Island Records, owned by Chris Blackwell. UMG and Polygram later acquired the publishing through transfers and mergers/acquisitions from Island Records. In that agreement, Romeo was to receive semi-accounts and a 25% royalty of all sums made from the licensing of the recordings by Perry and Romeo.
As for the songwriting agreement, he entered into an agreement with Island Music (an affiliate of Blackwell’s Island Records), which “purported to transfer all [Romeo’s] publishing rights in the songs on the albums delivered to Island Music, and for Island Music to pay through payment of advances and royalties.” In this agreement, he was to receive a royalty of 50% of all sums received by Island Music in relation to his compositions.
Under the agreements, the artiste claims to have performed his obligations and delivered master recordings for the albums, ‘War Ina Babylon’ and ‘Reconstruction’ which contain 19 recordings of his performances that he either wrote or co-wrote.
The two defendants came into the picture around 1989 when the PolyGram U.K. Group, or its parent, subsidiary, or affiliate (“PolyGram”), acquired Island Records, and in 1998, Island Records merged into UMG.
The artiste claims that he has never received any royalties in respect of the sampling by Jay Z and The Prodigy nor the licensing of “Chase The Devil” on the 2011 movie Paul, which grossed $100 million at the box office.
He did receive a small fee for his song appearing in the Grand Theft San Andreas game. Still, the artiste says the “25% of a $5,000 “synchronization fee” was “well below commercial expectations and industry standards for a release of this magnitude,” given the game’s wide success.
Further licensing of the song by Interscope Records was just as disappointing, with no accounting made to him by UMG. He also said Defendants failed to account for all sales, downloads, streams, and third-party license income per his contractual entitlement since 1976 and on the derivative works from the time of creation to the present.
To date, the artiste says he received $125,000 from UMG in 2021 and small amounts since. However, the claim says, “those payments did not come close to bringing the account for the Romeo Recordings current; nor did they compensate Romeo for lost interest on the late payments.”
The artiste is seeking the court to grant him relief in the form of damages of $15 million for the breach of the two agreements, along with interest from the date of the breach to judgment, as well as attorney costs and disbursements.
Further, the artist is asking the court to order UMG and Polygram to give an account of the sale, licensing, or distribution of the works under both agreements and wants the court to end the contracts.
“The foregoing breaches of the [Agreements] are so fundamental as to defeat the object of the contract. Plaintiff is therefore also entitled to judgment granting rescission of the [Agreements] and declaring the plaintiff to be the legal owner of the recordings [and compositions] and all rights pertaining to them,” he asked.
Romeo is being represented by attorney Matthew Schwartz of Schwartz & Ponterio PLLC, while the defendants are represented by Pryor Cashman LLP.
In a lengthy statement shared on his Instagram, Max Romeo outlines why he is now taking a stand and alluded that he has in the past exhausted all avenues in his attempt to rectify the situation.
“After 47 years, I have exhausted every resource available to me to get this matter rectified,” he said. “I had to sit on the side as my most eminent piece of work was exploited without proper compensation. I have seen and heard my music and voice being used in numerous commercial ventures and have only reaped from the opportunity to perform these songs for my fans live in concert.”
“At 78 years old, I cannot enter this new phase of my life being docile and silent, I have to speak up, I have to fight for what is rightfully mine with whatever strength left in me,” he added. “A little man from rural St. Ann fighting the biggest recording label in the world in the Supreme Court of the United States of America.”