The lawsuits haven't even been filed yet, but already the dispute over Bob Marley's ringtones is heating up to unprecedented levels. Last month, Verizon Wireless struck an exclusive licensing deal wit

The lawsuits haven't even been filed yet, but already the dispute over Bob Marley's ringtones is heating up to unprecedented levels.

Last month, Verizon Wireless struck an exclusive licensing deal with Universal Music Group for the entire Bob Marley catalog. The Marley family, though its Fifty Six Hope Road Music company, threatened to sue, claiming the deal represents an endorsement of Verizon by the late singer.

Verizon on Monday removed the offending ringtones, but according to sources grew angry when Island Records founder/Marley family adviser Chris Blackwell issued a statement claiming Verizon "ceded to the Marley family estate demands."

In response, Verizon added the ringtones back. At press time, they are not available via Verizon's Web site, but can be found and downloaded via the mobile phone. A Verizon spokeswoman said the company initially removed the content to let UMG and the Marley estate reach an agreement, but reversed course after the Blackwell statement.

As a result of the initial takedown, however, Verizon has now lost its exclusive on the Marley content. Sources say Verizon had a 30-day exclusive on the ringtones, ringback tones and other mobile content gained through the agreement.

That exclusive term has not yet expired, but UMG issued a statement saying it would make the disputed Marley ringtones available to other U.S. operators as well. Those ringtones have shipped and should be available to purchase as early as next week.

What that means for the deal between Verizon and UMG is not clear. Usually, operators either pay cash or provide in-kind promotion for labels in return for an exclusive. Sources close to the situation say UMG will not reimburse Verizon in any way for ending the exclusive early, citing Verizon's voluntary decision to remove the ringtones.

The origin of the dispute dates back to March, when Verizon refused to enter into an endorsement agreement with the Marley estate after Blackwell asked for $1
million.

"I am infuriated that Verizon would go around the estate and initiate partnership with Universal Music Group," said Blackwell in a statement. "We cannot and will not allow Bob Marley's name and likeness to be used in such a manner without the authorization of the family."

Should the lawsuits proceed, they will raise an interesting issue over whether the use of an artist's image to promote mobile content in fact amounts to an endorsement. UMG feels it does not.

"We are disappointed that the management of the Marley estate has chosen to take such an extreme and meritless position that a customary promotional campaign highlighting the availability of Marley mastertones somehow constitutes an 'endorsement' of Verizon overall." UMG said in a statement.

The issue adds to another ringtone dispute still making its way through courts. Several artists, including the Allman Brothers and Cheap Trick, filed a class action suit against Sony BMG claiming they should get half of revenues gained from all digital downloads -- including master ringtones -- as is usual with a music licensing deal, rather than the much lower sale percentage which differs by contract. Tom Waits' Third Story Music filed a similar suit against Warner Music Group.