Marley Family’s Vitriol Leads Verizon to Bite Back
The licensing dispute between the estate of the reggae singer Bob Marley and the Universal Music Group took an ugly turn yesterday, with nobody getting together or feeling the least bit all right.
At issue is an agreement struck last month for Verizon Wireless to become the exclusive provider of ring tones from the catalog of Mr. Marley, who died in 1981. Universal, a subsidiary of Vivendi, owns the rights to the music.
Mr. Marley’s family promptly objected to the deal, calling it tantamount to an endorsement and saying that it required their approval. The family threatened to sue to block the arrangement.
Yesterday, early in the afternoon, it looked as if Verizon Wireless was removing itself from the fray. The Marley family issued a statement that it would not follow through with plans to file a suit against the carrier for trademark infringement because Verizon had “ceded” to its demands and taken most of the 44 ring tones by the singer off the Verizon Wireless Web site. Sixteen ring tones remained on the site, songs from early in Mr. Marley’s career that are owned by companies other than Universal.
But in announcing that Verizon had changed course, the family was less than conciliatory. In a written statement, Chris Blackwell, a longtime spokesman for the family, said that he was “infuriated that Verizon would go around the estate and initiate partnership with Universal” and that it was “disturbing that these companies refuse to give the musicians the respect they deserve.”
James Gerace, a Verizon spokesman, said, “I was a little taken aback by their statement.”
And the company was not just taken aback; it took it all back.
“We had earlier this week decided to take the content down temporarily to give the Marley estate and Universal time to work out their differences,” Mr. Gerace said. “Now, in light of that statement, we’ll be putting that content back up tomorrow.”
In that case, Mr. Blackwell said in a hastily prepared statement last night, the suit with Verizon was back on “because they went back on their word.”
Complicating matters, Universal announced yesterday afternoon that Verizon, which initially trumpeted that it was the exclusive provider of the Marley ring tones, would soon be joined by “all phone carriers.”
Mr. Blackwell said Universal would be named in yet another suit, to be filed within a couple of weeks. He said the family remained livid with the label, which they maintain circumvented them in its deal with Verizon.
“It was basically a subterfuge action,” Mr. Blackwell said from his home in Britain. “It is Universal who really are the major criminals in this thing because they actually licensed the songs without our permission.”
In a written statement, Universal said it was disappointed that “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 over all.”
The issue is a personal one for Mr. Blackwell, 70, the founder of Island Records. He is credited with exposing Mr. Marley, who died of cancer at the age of 36, to an international audience. He sold Island Records to Polygram Records, which was eventually bought by Seagram and merged into Universal.
The Marley ring tones have been downloaded more than 30,000 times in less than two weeks, according to a spokesman for Universal.
Among the downloaded ring tones that Verizon removed but is now offering again is Mr. Marley’s “One Love/People Get Ready,” in which he sings, “Let’s get together and feel all right.”