Universal Music Calls Max Romeo's $15 Million Lawsuit A “Fishing Expedition”

UMG Recordings, Inc. and Polygram Publishing Inc. have asked a judge to dismiss a US$15 million lawsuit from Reggae legend Max Romeo, describing it as a “fishing expedition,” according to a copy of the filing obtained by DancehallMag.  

The lawsuit, filed late last year in the New York Supreme Court, concerns almost 50 years of allegedly unpaid royalties on 19 songs, including Chase The Devil, War Ina Babylon, and One Step Forward.  The songs appeared on the albums War Ina Babylon (1976) and Reconstruction (1977) under recording and publishing contracts that Romeo signed that decade with Christopher Blackwell’s Island Records and Island Music.  

In February this year, UMG and Polygram, who now control the Island companies, moved to dismiss the complaint on several grounds, including the six-year statute of limitations for initiating such claims in the state of New York.  In May, Judge Suzanne J. Adams dismissed the lawsuit but allowed Romeo, now 79, to re-file an amended complaint in September 2023.

In their second motion to dismiss, filed Tuesday (November 28), UMG and Polygram asserted that Romeo’s revised complaint still violates the statute of limitations, which potentially restricts the Jamaican artist’s claims to no earlier than December 2016.

They also criticized the lawsuit for lacking specifics about when the alleged contractual breaches occurred, which royalty statements are in question, and which contract provisions were violated. The companies argued that this lack of specificity fails to meet the legal requirements for a valid claim.

“He [Romeo] cannot plead vague assertions that amount to ‘I think I have not been paid enough’ in an effort to obtain wide-ranging discovery in the hope of finding after the fact some error or miscalculation that he believes may have occurred over the course of a nearly 50-year period,” UMG and Polygram’s attorneys, Pryor Cashman LLP, contended.

“Doing so violates the well-established rules of pleading and the governing statute of limitations and is a waste of this Court’s and the Defendants’ resources.”

Pryor Cashman is the same high-profile law firm representing the majority of the Reggaetón artists and record companies in Steely & Clevie’s copyright infringement lawsuit.

Max Romeo is being represented by the NY-based firm Dunnegan & Scileppi LLC.

In his amended suit, Romeo claimed that, after he had demanded a complete accounting for the years since 1976, he received only $125,565.04 from UMG in September 2021, with smaller payments after that.  He further alleged that these payments “did not come close” to being sufficient and didn’t account for lost interest.

But in the motion filed on Tuesday, UMG and Polygram argued that their alleged failures to provide twice-yearly royalty statements between 1976 and 2021 are “all definitively time-barred” by the statute of limitations. 

They wrote: “Indeed, Plaintiff concedes that he was provided over forty-years’ of accountings and payments under the agreements. If royalty statements from within the statute of limitations were missing or incomplete, he could easily identify them. He has not done so. That warrants dismissal of his claims.”

Max Romeo

Romeo had also alleged several instances of “false” and missing royalty accounting in the statements provided to him in 2021.   

This included the Island Reggae Triple Best Of compilation, released only on CD with three Max Romeo songs, each reported with different sales and one with a different royalty rate, despite being under the same agreement.  Romeo alleged that the inconsistency was physically impossible and contractually irregular.  

In response, UMG and Polygram contended that these allegations were “insufficient” because Romeo did not specify “when the compilation album was released, when the compilation album was sold, nor for what years the supposedly incorrect royalties were paid for any or all of the three songs.”

“Plaintiff does not even specify whether he is alleging that the higher royalty rate or the lower royalty rate was correct,” they added.

Romeo had also claimed that despite being credited as a writer for Jay-Z’s Lucifer (2003) and The Prodigy’s Out Of Space (1999), he has not received “a penny in royalties” from Polygram for those artists’ use of samples from his song Chase The Devil. UMG and Polygram countered that Romeo did not specify any dates for these alleged breaches, and even if he had, those dates would have been outside the six-year statute of limitations.

The companies also challenged Romeo’s claims regarding unpaid and underpaid royalties for the use of his music in the movie Paul, the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game, and its official soundtrack. They asserted that these claims are invalid since these media were released well beyond the six-year statute of limitations and that any discrepancy should have been challenged within six years of each royalty statement’s issuance.

Romeo had also claimed that Polygram breached the publishing contract by failing to pay him “his share of publisher royalties derived from his rights to ‘public performance income.’” In response, UMG argued that performing rights societies handle these payments and that the contract excluded Romeo from claiming such royalties from Polygram.

“In the section of the agreement entitled “Compensation,” Plaintiff expressly agreed that he has ‘no claim whatsoever against Publisher for any royalties received by [Island Music] from any performing rights society,’ but rather is only entitled to receive his songwriter’s share of public performance royalties directly from such performing rights society,” UMG said.

Romeo had expressed his frustration and determination in a recent statement on the suit: “After 47 years, I have exhausted every resource available to me to get this matter rectified. I had to sit to 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.”

He added: “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. I have to do this for the new generation to come, to raise awareness as I am often addressed as ‘legend’ or a ‘veteran’—a title I take with great pride.”

The singer, whose real name is Maxwell Smith, is seeking over $7.5 million in damages for each breach of contract, plus interest, legal fees, and a full accounting of his royalties.

He also wants the court to rescind his recording and songwriting agreements, which would effectively make him the legal owner of his 19 songs.

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