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Appeals court cuts Quincy Jones’ win in Michael Jackson dispute by $6.9 million

By | Published on Wednesday 6 May 2020

Quincy Jones

An appeals court in California has greatly reduced the pay-out won by legendary producer Quincy Jones in his legal battle with the Michael Jackson estate. It concluded that the judge in the original case should not have left the jury to interpret tricky clauses in Jones’s original producer contracts with Jackson and his business partners.

Although Jones originally sued Sony Music and Jackson’s MJJ Productions company for $30 million, it was still considered quite a victory when he was awarded $9.4 million by a jury in 2017. The producer claimed that he had been screwed out of his share of income generated by various projects pursued by Sony and the Jackson estate after the late king of pop’s death in 2009, all of which used music from the Jackson albums Jones had produced.

Jones’s claims to payment were mainly based on two producer contracts he had signed with Jackson back in 1978 and 1985. For its part the Jackson estate claimed Jones was incorrectly interpreting those contracts. They conceded that he had been underpaid on some projects to the tune of about $400,000, but insisted that the producer’s claims for millions were unjustified.

After the 2017 ruling, the estate said they were “disappointed and surprised” by the jury’s decision. The jury – like Jones – had misinterpreted the old contracts, they added. And giving the producer “millions of dollars that he has no right to receive under his contracts is wrong”. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the estate subsequently appealed the decision.

The $9.4 million that Jones had been awarded was broken down according to the various claims of underpayment that the producer had made. The estate specifically appealed the $1.5 million that he’d been awarded on the basis that the estate had failed to give him first refusal on a Jackson remix project. And a hefty $5.3 million that both Jones and the jury reckoned the producer was due as his share of profits from MJJP’s joint venture with Sony.

Both of those financial awards were based on specific – and incorrect, the estate argued – interpretations of clauses in those 1978 and 1985 contracts. And this week appeal judges basically concurred. Firstly the judge in the original case should never have allowed the jury to get involved in contractual interpretation in the first place. And, for what it’s worth, once the jury did take on the contractual interpretation task, they got it wrong.

“Interpretation of the producer agreements was solely a judicial function, yet the trial court allowed the jury to perform that function and ultimately misinterpret the relevant terms”, the appeals court stated. Those agreements “provided Jones with nothing more than a right to receive payments correlating to a 10% basic royalty on the base royalty price for record sales”, they added, making the proposed $5.3 million way too high. Plus Jones’s contract “did not entitle Jones to fees for remixing masters”, so that payment was also unjustified.

With that in mind, the appeals courts reversed both the profit share and remix fee monies awarded by the jury, knocking a neat $6.9 million off Jones’s win. Meanwhile, concurrent complaints made by the producer over the original court case were rejected.

As a quick aside, there’s actually a typo in the final paragraph of this week’s ruling so that the judgement only officially removes $531,587 from Jones’s profit share sum, which would allow him to keep $4.7 million of it. So maybe the producer’s next step could be legal action to enforce the typo. That would be fun.