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F.B.T. Productions, LLC v. Aftermath Records

September 3, 2010

F.B.T. PRODUCTIONS, LLC; EM2M, LLC, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
AFTERMATH RECORDS, AFTERMATH ENTERTAINMENT; MAN INTERSCOPE RECORDS; UMG RECORDING, INC.; ARY, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.
F.B.T. PRODUCTIONS, LLC; EM2M, LLC, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
AFTERMATH RECORDS, MAN AFTERMATH ENTERTAINMENT; INTERSCOPE RECORDS; UMG RECORDING, INC.; ARY, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Philip S. Gutierrez, District Judge, Presiding, D.C. No. 2:07-cv-03314-PSG-DBA.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Silverman, Circuit Judge

FOR PUBLICATION

Argued and Submitted July 12, 2010 -- Pasadena, California

Before: Jerome Farris, Cynthia Holcomb Hall and Barry G. Silverman, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

This dispute concerns the percentage of royalties due to Plaintiffs F.B.T. Productions, LLC, and Em2M, LLC, under their contracts with Defendant Aftermath in connection with the recordings of Marshal B. Mathers, III, professionally known as the rap artist Eminem.*fn1 Specifically, F.B.T. and Aftermath disagree on whether the contracts' "Records Sold" provision or "Masters Licensed" provision sets the royalty rate for sales of Eminem's records in the form of permanent downloads and mastertones. Before trial, F.B.T. moved for summary judgment that the Masters Licensed provision unambiguously applied to permanent downloads and master-tones. The district court denied the motion. At the close of evidence, F.B.T. did not move for judgment as a matter of law, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Aftermath. On appeal, F.B.T. reasserts that the Masters Licensed provision unambiguously applies to permanent downloads and master-tones. We agree that the contracts are unambiguous and that the district court should have granted summary judgment to F.B.T. We therefore reverse the judgment and vacate the district court's order awarding Aftermath its attorneys' fees.

BACKGROUND

F.B.T. signed Eminem in 1995, gaining exclusive rights to his recordings. In 1998, F.B.T. signed an agreement transferring Eminem's exclusive recording services to Aftermath. The "Records Sold" provision of that agreement provides that F.B.T. is to receive between 12% and 20% of the adjusted retail price of all "full price records sold in the United States . . . through normal retail channels." The agreement further provides that "[n]otwithstanding the foregoing," F.B.T. is to receive 50% of Aftermath's net receipts "[o]n masters licensed by us . . . to others for their manufacture and sale of records or for any other uses." The parties refer to this provision as the "Masters Licensed" provision. The contract defines "master" as a "recording of sound, without or with visual images, which is used or useful in the recording, production or manufacture of records." The agreement does not contain a definition of the terms "licensed" or "normal retail channels."

In 2002, Aftermath's parent company, Defendant UMG Recordings, Inc., concluded an agreement with Apple Computer, Inc., that enabled UMG's sound recordings, including the Eminem masters, to be sold through Apple's iTunes store as permanent downloads. Permanent downloads are digital copies of recordings that, once downloaded over the Internet, remain on an end-user's computer or other device until deleted. The contract between UMG and Apple is but one example of the many agreements that Aftermath has concluded to sell sound recordings in digital formats since approximately 2001. Since 2003, Aftermath has also concluded contracts with major cellular telephone network carriers to sell sound recordings as mastertones, which are short clips of songs that can be purchased by users to signal incoming calls, popularly known as ringtones.

In 2003, F.B.T. and Aftermath entered into a new agreement that terminated the 1998 agreement. The 2003 agreement increased some royalty rates, but incorporated the wording of the Records Sold and Masters Licensed provisions from the 1998 agreement. In 2004, the parties amended the agreement to provide that "Sales of Albums by way of permanent download shall be treated as [U.S. Normal Retail Channel] Net Sales for the purposes of escalations." Escalations are increases in the royalty rate when total album sales surpass certain targets. The amendment further provides, "Except as specifically modified herein, the Agreement shall be unaffected and remain in full force and effect."

F.B.T. brought suit after a 2006 audit showed that Aftermath had been applying the Records Sold provision to calculate the royalties due to F.B.T. for sales of Eminem's recordings in the form of permanent downloads and master-tones. Before trial, F.B.T. moved for summary judgment that the Masters Licensed provision unambiguously applied to those sales. Aftermath cross-moved for summary judgment. It argued, in part, that the 2004 amendment showed that the parties intended the Records Sold provision to apply to permanent downloads.

After provisionally reviewing the undisputed extrinsic evidence, the district court concluded that the agreements were reasonably susceptible to either party's interpretation and denied both motions for summary judgment. At trial, only Aftermath moved for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the evidence. The court denied the motion. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Aftermath, and the district court awarded Aftermath its attorneys' fees of over $2.4 million. F.B.T. timely appealed the district court's final judgment and award of attorneys' fees. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and we reverse.

DISCUSSION

I. F.B.T. Is Not Precluded from Arguing that the Masters Licensed Provision Unambiguously Applies to ...


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