Legal Thriller: Quincy Jones Sues Michael Jackson’s Estate

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Image via Ron Galella and Wire Image

The trial has officially commenced in the matter of Jones v. Sony Entertainment and MJJ Productions. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones filed suit against Sony Entertainment and MJJ Productions (a song company controlled by Michael Jackson) in 2013 claiming that master recordings he produced for Jackson were edited and remixed in order to deprive him of money he would otherwise be entitled to.

The professional relationship between Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson is considered legendary in the pop music world. The two genius musicians have collaborated on some of the most critically acclaimed and highest selling music of all time. Jones has produced some of Jackson’s most well-known and revered music including songs on Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad.

Jackson passed away in the summer of 2009. Sony Entertainment and MJJ Productions released the This Is It film and soundtrack album, the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil productions and the 25th anniversary edition of the Bad album posthumously. New producers were hired on these projects to remix and re-do songs already recorded by Jackson and produced by Jones.

In a complaint filed in 2013 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Jones alleges that master recordings he worked on in these posthumous releases were wrongfully edited and remixed so as to deprive him of backend profit participation. Jones also asserts that he has been denied credit for his work on the singer’s posthumous releases and that MJJ and Sony have entered into side deals taking profits that should have been included in the calculation of royalties. After several false starts, the trial has finally commenced.

Essentially, Quincy Jones and his legal team claim that Sony and MJJ breached contracts that Jones signed in 1978 and 1985. Breach of contract trial can be complicated and multilayered. In fact, what is a breach? When did the breach occur? Who breached the contract? What are the damages for the breach? Theses are only some of the myriad of questions posed when litigating or entertaining to litigate a breach of contract action.

In California, the Plaintiff (Jones) must prove at least four elements to prevail on a breach of contract cause of action:

  1. Existence of Contract;
  2. The Plaintiff’s Performance or Lack of Performance due to an Excuse;
  3. The Defendant’s Breach of the Contract; and
  4. The Plaintiff’s Damages As A Result of Defendant’s Breach of Contract

Jones’ Attorney Michael McKool focused on the two producer agreements from 1978 and 1985 in his opening statements. He says those agreements specified that Jones’ royalty would come from Jackson’s share of profits from their works and that any changes to the rate the performer received would be reflected in the producer’s pay, too. McKool said the deals also ensured Jones would be given the first opportunity to remix any of the works he produced.

Jackson’s death in 2009 generated high demand from the King of Pop’s music catalog.  This allowed the estate to negotiate a bigger share of Sony’s profits. Jones’ royalties remained consistent, and McKool argued they should have increased proportionally. Ultimately, Jones says he’s owed at least $30 million.

MJJ attorney Zia Modabber gave his opening statement after McKool finished. Unexpectedly, Modabber acknowledged that an audit did reveal Jones was shorted. However, he claims it was only a fraction of the amount he’s asking for. He said Jones’ contract doesn’t entitle him to a share of the licensing fees, when his works are featured in movies, for example, but Jackson paid him one anyway and the estate continues that practice.

The ongoing trial is set to last three weeks. While Jones and Jackson’s estate may be at odds in the court room, no judge’s decision will ever alter the magic that the two made in the studio together.

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