Legal blogs and lawyers have been analyzing a recent win in small claims court by Montreal hip hop artist Jonathan Emile against defendants Top Dawg Entertainment Inc., Interscope Records and Universal Music Group, calling it “an unusual case.”
The 30-year-old rapper secured a feature from Kendrick Lamar for his 2015 song, “Heaven Help Dem,” from his The Lover/Fighter Document. However any momentum gained from Lamar’s contribution was halted when the song was removed from YouTube, SoundCloud and other online platforms for alleged copyright infringement.
Emile sued for damages, eventually winning a judgment in his favor for for $8,600 CAD (about $6,400 USD) plus five percent interest, according to figures provided to Billboard by Emile’s management company, High Season Co.
Emile represented himself in court.
In an interview with Billboard Emile, whose new album Phantom Pain is serendipitously scheduled for release soon (with a new supporting single, “Limit,” just released), says the lawsuit was essentially to restore his reputation. Lamar wrote and performed the verse for “Heaven Help Dem” — a song dedicated to Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin “and too many [others] to name” — after Emile and his manager at the time cold-contacted Lamar’s management.
“We sent him an email outlining what we wanted to do and they got us on the phone and said they were feeling it and that they would go ahead and do the song,” Emile says.
“We paid Kendrick Lamar for a feature, and once we paid them, they basically stopped communicating with us altogether. It was understood that we’d take care of the paperwork with the lawyers, so we paid them and they basically disappeared… we couldn’t get in contact, so I just continued producing my album and with the verbal agreement we had, and we put out the song in 2015.
“After the song was put out, they placed a false copyright claim on the song itself and got it pulled from YouTube and SoundCloud and all that stuff. So, after going back and forth with these companies, they realized that they were in error and that there was no copyright claim on the song, but the damage had already been done and the momentum to promote the song had already been [lost]. So on the advice of my lawyers, we took them to small claims — to make a statement more than anything — and to show that what was done was not right and to clear my name, in terms of a lot of folks really did think that the verse was stolen and it’s not legitimate. We did what we had to do to get the judgment.”
Emile tells Billboard he received the judgment about a month ago, but didn’t do any press surrounding it. “It was just picked up because it was looked at by different lawyers as an atypical case.”
In a piece on Legal Feeds, Noel Courage, a partner at Bereskin & Parr LLP, which specializes in intellectual property, said, “I’ve … never noticed a case where someone sued over a takedown notice. The Court seemed to say that the takedown affected the moral rights of the musician’s work or performance. Moral rights are the musician’s rights to the integrity of a work. These rights can be infringed if the work is modified without consent, and prejudices the musician’s reputation or honour. This is the first I have heard of the use of moral rights in response to a web music takedown.”
Emile isn’t concerned that the suit damaged future opportunities to work with Lamar. “There is no relationship right now. And it’s not really something that I’m aiming towards right now.”
Even though “Heaven Help Dem” is back online, he says, “At this point, I’m not trying to draw attention to that particular track. I’m tying to move forward. I’ve put out many tracks since then and I have an album coming out either in December or January. We’re finalizing the marketing campaign.”
He says he decided to take a different approach for Phantom Pain, and collaborated with people under the age of 20 in Toronto and his home base of Montreal.
“I’ve been independent the whole time and that’s another part of the struggle to get my music out there,” he says.