By Eriq Gardner
Dr. Dre has been feuding with Death Row Records since his former record label was bought out of bankruptcy last year. The new entity, WIDEawake Death Row Records, put out a new version of his iconic album "The Chronic," as well as a greatest hits collection, without his permission.
Dre sued in February.
On Monday, a California district court tossed Dre's claims that Death Row's release of "The Chronic Re-Lit" violated his rights of trademark and publicity. However, the judge is allowing another claim — that he hasn't been paid royalties since splitting from Death Row in 1996 — to be heard.
Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, pushed the argument that Death Row was suggesting his endorsement of the new albums, particularly in the way it placed his name and likeness on the jacket cover of the album. In defense, Death Row said they didn't substantially modify the substance of "The Chronic" in anyway other than giving it sonic clarity and a slightly louder volume.
The nature of this dispute is informed by the casual way that Dre first created "The Chronic" in the early 1990s.
When Dre formed Death Row Records in 1991, he orally granted the label a non-exclusive license to release sound recordings. The following year, he made another oral agreement to the same effect over "The Chronic" in exchange for 18 percent royalty rate. Then, in 1996, he split Death Row, disclaiming his ownership interest in both the company and the sound recordings in exchange for both the previous-agreed-upon royalty rate and a promise not to distribute any of his songs except "in the manners heretofore distributed."
In analyzing the case, California District Court Judge Christina Snyder applies the so-called "Monty Python" rule, after a 1976 case where a defendant extensively edited the TV comedy series in order to broadcast it on television. The question is whether the changes to Dre's album are more than "cosmetic."
Judge Snider rules the alterations are "minor and inconsequential." She also points out that the image used on the cover jacket is the same photograph from the original album, instead of a more current photo, which may have gone further to imply some new endorsement.
Interestingly, on the right of publicity claim, it's the defendant who claims free speech protection on the plaintiff's expressive works. Somewhat of a novel legal twist.
Judge Snyder buys that argument, saying the use of plaintiff's likeness is no more than incidental to the protected publication of Dre's albums.
All said, Dre will have to settle for going after the new iteration of Death Row on the money he alleges is owed to him.