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Dispute Over Sampling Fees Has George Clinton in a Legal Funk

Copyrights: Rappers' use of star's music should have generated a fortune, but his attempts to claim it have been fruitless.

May 20, 2001|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cramped nightclubs and theaters that play host to funk star George Clinton these days can't accommodate the gigantic silver spaceship that was his signature stage prop in his heyday.

But the 59-year-old singer-composer keeps touring, typically on the road 200 nights a year. He says he needs the money to pay his lawyers.

With a court judgment against him, Clinton is on the verge of losing his claim to a fortune he hadn't foreseen--the millions of dollars generated by licensing his early contribution to pop music.

Along with James Brown, Clinton is considered one of the creators of a musical style that has inspired pop artists as varied as Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Infusing classic soul with synthesizers and exuberant bass lines, Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic ensemble produced music in the 1970s that integrated dance floors and offered messages of support to the era's antiwar and civil rights movements.

Funk, as Clinton says, became "the DNA of hip-hop," as rap artists began lifting snippets of his songs to form the musical background behind their rhymes. Rap has made Clinton perhaps the most-sampled artist on the planet--a lucrative distinction at a time black music is so popular that it's becoming a Wall Street commodity. The Isley Brothers, who have had more than 410 requests for permission to sample their catalog, last year closed an estimated $15-million deal to issue bonds backed by their future royalties.

Sampling also has generated new fortunes for such acts as the late Curtis Mayfield and writer-producers Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards. And it has provided a new source of cash for the publishing divisions of the major record conglomerates.

Record executives speculate that Clinton's songs should have generated the record industry's biggest sampling fortune. Use of his work in hundreds of rap and R&B songs since the late '80s easily could have meant $10 million for him, they say, if every performer who lifted a piece of his songs had paid and if the catalog had generated money at the same rate as those of other heavily-sampled artists. Lawyers dueling over the songs say the true figure could hit $20 million or more.

But Bridgeport Music, the Detroit company that administers licensing of the songs, says it doesn't owe Clinton a nickel. And the company said there isn't that much money to fight over--Bridgeport said it has collected only about $4 million for Clinton songs, including recent court settlements, because record labels have copied snippets without paying. Label executives, in turn, say their artists often don't inform them when they've borrowed from other works.

Clinton has accused Bridgeport of stealing his fortune and he is bent on recovering whatever money he can.

But his best chance may have passed. In a lawsuit Clinton filed in U.S. District Court in Florida, a judge in January ruled in favor of Bridgeport and dismissed Clinton's complaint. Clinton had contended he still controlled more than 130 songs he co-wrote from 1972 to 1984. The list includes compositions that proved to be the most popular with rap acts, such as "One Nation Under a Groove," "Freak of the Week" and "(Not Just) Knee Deep."

Clinton said he legally owns the songs and that he hired Bridgeport only to field requests from record labels seeking to reuse them. Bridgeport was supposed to keep his royalties only until enough money came in to pay off his Adrian, Mich., farm, which the company owned, he said.

Bridgeport President Armen Boladian said Clinton sold his songs to the company in documents signed nearly two decades ago.

And Bridgeport said it doesn't have to pay Clinton any of the money publishers usually owe to songwriters.

Writers typically sign over their copyrights to a music publisher in exchange for 50% of the money the company generates from finding new uses for the songs.

But Boladian and his lawyers said in interviews that Bridgeport doesn't owe Clinton that share because it hasn't recouped more than $5 million in expenses and advances paid to the composer over the years. Bridgeport is deducting the advances from Clinton's royalties until they are paid off, a standard industry practice.

Since the Florida federal judge ruled in Bridgeport's favor, Clinton has fired his lawyer and is challenging the decision. He also is demanding an accounting of his royalties for the last 24 years.

A partial accounting Clinton received from the company, his attorneys say, shows Bridgeport took more than $1.6 million in questionable deductions from his royalties. Among other items, Bridgeport charged him $500,000 for "estimated revenue lost" from licensing opportunities that might have arisen if the company hadn't been in litigation. It also deducted $750,000 for its own legal expenses in a related case in which Clinton wasn't a party.

In a separate lawsuit, Clinton is trying to win back ownership of the farm that was his family home for 16 years before Bridgeport's Boladian evicted him.

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