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Chuck D brings the legal noise

To paraphrase the title of Public Enemy’s best album: It Takes a Nation of Accountants To Hold Us Back. That’s the gist of the band’s frontman Chuck D’s current gripe about the music industry. Their royalty rates show a distinct lack of respect.

In a career characterised by raging against America’s racial inequality, economic iniquities and perceived police brutality, Chuck D has always presented himself as a charismatic and articulate fighter on the side of the underdog. Now he is speaking out on behalf of those poor oppressed souls: the multi-millionaire artists who haven’t been getting their full share of digital royalties. The cause might not get a million protesters marching on Washington, but plenty of musicians will be watching with interest.

Chuck’s beef is that Universal Music has treated digital downloads as sales, rather than licenses, allowing them to pay out a substantially lower royalty percentage over several years. He has filed a class action lawsuit against the record company, alongside a couple of unlikely allies: the kitsch rocker Rob Zombie and the estate of the late Rick James.

Chuck will be bringing the noise to the San Francisco Federal Court, claiming that Universal has underpaid hundreds of millions of dollars. His legal team point out that there is an Appeal Court precedent identifying digital releases as licenses.

Universal Music is showing no sign of backing down, while a partner at Chuck D’s legal representatives insists that Chuck will carry on "fighting the power". For a respectable percentage of the take.

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