French rapper MC Solaar has won a legal battle against Universal Music France that started nearly seven years ago. The court ordered Universal to give all of Solaar's recording masters, along with th

PARIS -- French rapper MC Solaar has won a legal battle against Universal Music France that started nearly seven years ago.

The judgment -- handed down June 21 by France's highest court, the Cour de Cassation -- says that Universal no longer has the right to exploit the artist's works. The court ordered Universal to give all of Solaar's recording masters, along with their videoclips, back to the artist.

The verdict confirms an April 2002 appeals court decision in favor of the artist, which forced Universal to remove from stores all four albums released through its contract with Solaar.

The artist, whose real name is Claude M'Barali, initially filed legal proceedings in 1997 before France's labour court, the Tribunal des Prud'hommes, seeking to free himself from an August 1993 recording contract with Universal's Polydor label. The contract was an extension of the original deal he signed with Universal (then known as PolyGram) in 1990.

On June 29, 2000, the Prud'hommes court ruled that the contract between Solaar and Universal was void and ordered the record company to revert all recordings to the artist. Universal appealed the decision, leading to the April 2002 verdict by the Appeals Court of Paris.

The ruling covers Solaar's first four albums, including his debut set "Qui Seme Le Vent Recolte Le Tempo" (1991) and "Prose Combat" (1994), each of which sold more than 600,000 copies in France. Since 1998, Solaar has been signed to Warner Music France's label East West, which has released "Cinquieme As" (2001) and "Mach 6" (2003).

The crux of the dispute was Universal's release of the eponymous "MC Solaar" album nearly a year after the artist's contract should have ended. Solaar finished the set in March 1997, but had intended it to be half of a double album. Universal, however, released the first half separately in June 1997 as "Paradisiaque," supposedly against the artist's wishes.

This tactic, which Solaar's manager Daniel Margules says was intended to give Universal grounds for extending his contract, was accompanied with "threats towards the artist to ensure he didn't make an album with another record company."

Universal says in a statement reacting to the verdict: "This decision, on which Universal Music will not comment, does not allow MC Solaar to exploit those recordings of which Universal Music is the producer and as such the sole owner of their intellectual property rights."

In French legal terminology, the producer of a recording is the individual or the company which has bankrolled the recording and is therefore considered its owner.

This indicates that the case is not entirely resolved, says Isabelle Wekstein, a Paris-based lawyer who represents artists and songwriters. "Universal is not allowed to exploit the master recordings, but it's unclear whether MC Solaar can either. Universal remains the producer."

Margules contests this point. "The judgment puts everything back to before Solaar signed with Universal, so it's as if the contract never existed and Solaar never granted the record company the right to use his work."

The ruling should encourage French labels "to be more prudent," says Wekstein, "as it shows the extent to which contracts cover not only an artists' future, but his or her past, too."