(CN) – The new owners of Death Row Records, the label Dr. Dre co-founded in 1991, do not have the right to sell digital versions of the rapper’s hit album, “The Chronic,” a Los Angeles federal judge ruled.
Dr. Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, sued WIDEawake Death Row Entertainment in February 2010 after the production company sold his 1992 debut album online without permission and capped his royalty rate at 18 percent.
U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder wrote that an agreement Dr. Dre signed when he sold his ownership in Death Row in 1996 bars the label from selling digital copies of “The Chronic,” and from selling his songs as singles or as part of “greatest hits” compilations.
WIDEawake, which bought Death Row out of bankruptcy for $18 million in January 2009, argued that Dr. Dre agreed to the digital sales and inevitably received the “benefit of the bargain,” according to the ruling.
The judge disagreed, pointing out that the rapper “diligently guarded his rights” to the Billboard-topping album. Between 1999 and 2000, the musician’s counsel sent warning letters to the label regarding the release of a compilation album, and cease-and-desist letters to online retailers, according to the ruling.
Because the rapper focused his “protestations” on label’s distribution of his songs as digital singles, Death Row claimed Dr. Dre had implicitly acquiesced to its distribution of his songs in other forms, like compilations.
Snyder shut down that line of reasoning.
“It does not follow that because plaintiff primarily challenged Death Row’s distribution on one ground, he necessarily acceded to distribution on all other grounds,” Snyder wrote.
Furthermore, the parties’ contract includes a clear limitation barring distribution of the rapper’s songs in compilation albums or “in any fashion other than how they were made available prior to the execution of the 1996 agreement,” the judge wrote.
“[B]ecause plaintiff was relinquishing his creative control in Death Row and striking out on his own, he sought to retain some measure of security in how Death Row presented his art to the public after his departure,” Snyder wrote.
“The upshot of this limitation is that plaintiff would have had the opportunity to negotiate the terms for new manners of distribution of his recordings, including higher royalty payments.”
Howard King, the rapper’s attorney, told the Associated Press that Dr. Dre will now receive 100 percent of the sales from digital distribution of the music.
“For years, Death Row Records forgot about Dre when they continued to distribute his music digitally and combined his hits with weaker Death Row tracks in an attempt to elevate the stature of their other artists,” the lawyer said in a statement.
“We are gratified that the federal court has unambiguously declared that Death Row has no right to engage in such tactics, and must hold all proceeds from these illicit distributions in trust for our client.”