If Michael Jackson could see that his longtime friend and collaborator Quincy Jones was suing him in court for millions of dollars, “Michael would be rolling over in his grave,” says entertainment attorney Howard Weitzman, whose team is representing the Jackson estate in the case.
Weitzman, along with attorney Zia Modabber, spoke with Billboard exclusively as they prepared to head to Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday to convince a jury in their closing arguments that Jones is not entitled to receive the additional $30 million he is seeking in royalties. The case pits the legendary 84-year-old producer against the estate of the King of Pop, who died eight years ago after his doctor administered a fatal cocktail of medications.
Jones, who testified in court last week, maintains that he’s owed the royalties for the use of the songs from Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and the film This Is It, among other projects. Jones has already received about $18 million in royalties since Jackson’s death, according to testimony given during the trial; his legal team did not respond to a request for comment.
But after nearly three weeks presenting a jury with evidence, testimony, music and line-by-line royalty summaries in an effort to prove that Jones is only entitled to a share of record sales, Weitzman says that he believes that the primary reason Jones is unhappy is because his name was left out of the credits for the film This Is It. The estate acknowledged that the omission was an error and said Jones received an apology.
Weitzman and Modabber spoke to Billboard about the trial so far and what to expect from their closing argument Monday, which they promise will be “entertaining.”
What are your thoughts about the trial up to this point?
Weitzman: For us this case is kind of a simple breach-of-contract case, and Mr. Jones wants money that he's not entitled to. He's been paid every time his masters have been used. He's been paid his fees for all the recordings and he wants additional money, and we don't think he's entitled to it. He has testified that he doesn't care what the contract says. This case was filed four years after Michael died. It appears from the testimony that he [Jones] became upset because he did not get proper credit in the film This Is It.
Why didn't Jones get credit for the film This Is It?
Weitzman: We made a mistake, to be that blunt. He wasn't involved in anything about the movie. Obviously he produced the masters in the late '70s and through the mid '80s on those three albums, Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, and he's certainly entitled to credit as a producer on those masters. Yes, he should have gotten the credit, but I'm not sure how that gets you on a platform to jump off and file a lawsuit four years after Michael died and after This Is It was released. He basically suggested that he didn't care what the contract says and that he should [be part of] Michael's 1991 joint venture with Sony.
Modabber: The movie This Is It was rehearsal footage [from Michael] that was never intended to be publicized. The vocals and the audio weren't perfect. Michael owned these master recordings and so they went to those recordings that he owned, and they were edited in bits and pieces in the movie to make it sound better.
Weitzman: And Quincy got paid his fees on that.
Modabber: He got paid his fees using the exact same formula that is always used when masters that a producer produces are used in a movie. He got paid for Michael's masters being in the movie, something like $400,000 or $500,000, but he [Jones] has learned through this lawsuit that the estate has made something like $90 million and we think he's really upset that the estate made all this money, and he and his lawyers don't seem to have the ability to comprehend that the contributions of those masters for that movie is really a tiny little piece of what it was.
Weitzman: What we [the estate] are supposed to do is exploit the assets post death, and we got pretty lucky with This Is It and who knew? But it wasn't about the music. It was about Michael. Nobody would be buying tickets to the theater to listen to snippets of the masters.
Modabber: Take a step back and think about how much of that money is attributable to the snippets of the masters. The testimony came in that they paid a little over $4 million for all the masters in the movie. Quincy Jones is not the producer on all the masters. He's the producer on two-thirds of the masters. He gets his producer's share, which is a fraction. He doesn't get all that money. The money goes to the owner of the masters and Sony. Sony Music is the distributor. That is a truckload of money for one producer to make for snippets. It's the most amount of money that has ever been paid for master-use fees, maybe in the history of movies.
Do you believe that Jones deserves to receive some money?
Weitzman: Quincy Jones had the right to audit the record company directly for his producer royalties and he has done that for decades and it's always been worked out. That audit process was started before this lawsuit was started and the record company has calculated that Quincy has been underpaid by just under $400,000. In the real world when a record company says, "Okay we found these mistakes," and it's $400,000, it probably settles for a little bit more than that. Maybe it settles for $500,000 or $600,000 or $700,000. We told the jury that mistakes were made and he's owed some money. You've got a guy with a zillion different records sold in a zillion different ways in a zillion different places. Mistakes were made. It's the record business, but nobody is fighting about that. [Music attorney] John [Branca] testified that he told Howard to go offer him $2 or $3 million, five times what the record company found that he was owed by these mistakes and that was not good enough.
How much has the estate made since Michael's death?
Weitzman: It's been hundreds of millions of dollars.
Modabber: On top of paying all of the debt.
His children benefit from that?
Weitzman: They are the only beneficiaries.
How is the family dealing with this case?
The family is not involved because they are not beneficiaries although part of the estate's responsibility is to take care of Mrs. Jackson for her life, which we do. The children don't really know Mr. Jones and they are just aghast but they are not really involved because they didn't deal with him, and they were young when the This Is It film was made.
What are your plans if Jones receives a significant amount of money?
Weitzman: If it's zero the only impact is that we had to spend money for the lawyers to defend the case and go through the aggravation and anxiety. If he gets [major] money obviously there is a process post-trial, and we'll take advantage of all that, and sometime in the future if there is no relief there, then he'll get paid.
What are the legal costs for this case?
Modabber: A lot. These are on both sides. It's an expensive case.
How do you want Michael Jackson to be remembered?
Weitzman: I want him to continue to be remembered as one of the great musical entertainers of all time.
Modabber: That sums it up.
How are you preparing for the closing arguments?
Weitzman: We don't want to share that ... we would like a little element of surprise. Zia and I are going to split up the argument, but let me say this: It will be entertaining.