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The New York Court of Appeals denied a pioneering “girl group” trio, the Ronettes, millions of dollars in profits from the synchronization of their work Thursday. In a 5-0 opinion, the court said the members of the group are bound by the terms of a contract they signed without benefit of counsel when they were obscure teen-agers from Spanish Harlem. Greenfield v. Philles Records Inc., 114, was decided as a strict matter of contractual interpretation, with the court holding that the girls’ unconditional transfer of ownership rights to legendary rock ‘n’ roll producer Phil Spector is not altered by the fact that new technologies and marketing opportunities have significantly raised the ante. The Ronettes were paid less than $15,000 by Spector, even though their signature hit, “Be My Baby,” topped the charts and sold millions of copies. Re-release of Ronettes’ tunes has earned Spector millions of dollars, none of which was shared with the performers. The court did offer minor consolation to the early rock stars. It said the singers are owed royalties for the sale of audio reproductions at the 3 percent rate specified in the 1963 contract. “We realize that our conclusion here effectively prevents [the Ronettes] from sharing in the profits that defendants have received from synchronization licensing,” wrote Judge Victoria A. Graffeo for the court. “However sympathetic plaintiffs’ plight, we cannot resolve the case on that ground under the guise of contract construction.” In other decisions Thursday, the court: � Held that a Rochester, N.Y.-area neighborhood association’s challenge to a zoning determination was properly dismissed because the plaintiffs improperly filed with the wrong clerk. In Matter of Mendon Ponds Neighborhood Association v. Dehm, 126, the group was well within the 30-day limit when it filed its petition with the chief clerk of the Monroe County Supreme Court. However, the law requires filing with the county clerk. In a memorandum, the court affirmed the Appellate Division, 4th Department, and applied the law strictly. � Reminded judges “once again” that prospective jurors who “give some indication of bias but do not provide an unequivocal assurance of impartiality must be excused for cause.” People v. Pete Nichols, 124, stemmed from a Monroe County, N.Y., murder prosecution where prospective jurors indicated they would tend to afford greater credibility to police officers. When the judge neglected to inquire further and denied for-cause challenges, the defense used three peremptories. The Appellate Division, 4th Department, overturned the conviction in a 4-1 opinion affirmed Thursday through a unanimous memorandum. The Ronettes case is rooted in Spector’s discovery of the group in the early 1960s. At the time, Ronnie Bennett (now Greenfield), her sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley Ross had a small recording contract with Colpix, but played mainly at parties. After the girls auditioned for Spector, he got them out of their Colpix obligation and signed them to a contract in 1963. Over the next four years, they recorded 28 songs for Spector’s recording company, Philles Records, and became international celebrities. But their popularity waned and the trio stopped performing in 1967, shortly before Spector and Ronnie Bennett were married. Their rocky marriage ended a few years later in a messy divorce. In the early 1980s, when 1960s music enjoyed renewed popular interest, Spector began re-releasing Ronettes songs. Through new recording technologies and a process called “synchronization,” the Ronettes’ vocals were used in movie and television productions and for advertisements. Their music was featured in films such as “Dirty Dancing,” “Goodfellas” and “Mean Streets,” the television series “Moonlighting” and in commercials for American Express and other firms. Spector made millions licensing out the songs, but refused to share his profits with the artists. A breach of contract suit resulted. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Paula Omansky held for the Ronettes and ordered Spector to pay them half the licensing proceeds, or about $3 million. The Appellate Division, 1st Department, affirmed. Thursday, the New York Court of Appeals said the singers have no right to the licensing profits, but they are owed 3 percent of the royalties from audio recordings. Justice Graffeo said the contract is clear and unambiguous in granting Spector unconditional ownership rights to the master recordings. She said the contract’s silence on the issues of synchronization and domestic licensing — concepts which were unheard of when the contract was signed — does not alter the equation, or “[open] the door to the admissibility of extrinsic evidence to determine the intent of the parties.” The contract is “susceptible to only one reasonable interpretation — defendants are authorized to license the performances for use in visual media, such as movies and television commercials or broadcasts, and for domestic release by third parties in audio formats,” she said. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Judge George Bundy Smith did not take part. SIGNIFICANT SUM Andrew H. Bart of Pryor Cashman Sherman & Flynn in Manhattan who appeared for Spector, said Bart, who has been handling the case for nearly 15 years, said Thursday’s ruling brings the matter close to a conclusion and establishes clearly that “when a contract from the ’60s provides that a record company owns the masters free and clear, it means what it says and that there are no rights reserved to the artist unless [the contract] explicitly says so.” Bart, who has been handling the case for nearly 15 years, added, “I think it is an important principle of law in that it provides some certainty to contracting parties to know what the bargain is that they have entered into.” Ira G. Greenberg of Edwards & Angell in Manhattan, who argued for the Ronettes, said that even with the ruling, his clients are apparently owed a significant amount of money. Although the going rate today is 50 percent for royalties and the Ronettes agreed to 3 percent, the two percentages are based on entirely different calculations, Greenberg said, adding it is unclear how much money is involved. “I expect that when the smoke clears they will still get paid a substantial amount of money,” Greenberg said. “I don’t know what that will be because it has been remanded.” Greenberg said most of the major record companies have been paying the industry standard 50 percent royalty on licensing fees, even though they may not have a contractual obligation to do so. “We certainly hope they will continue to do that, notwithstanding the fact that under this decision there may no longer be a requirement that they do so,” Greenberg said. “Beyond that, I think the result is unfortunate with respect to synchronization licensing. It is unfortunate from the artist’s perspective that the record company should be allowed to reap the benefits of their performances and not pay anything. But the Court of Appeals has ruled, as a matter of contract law, that that’s the way it is. So, that’s the way it is.” The case generated considerable interest and concern in the record industry. For example, the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group representing more than 300 record companies, urged the court to reverse the Appellate Division ruling. On the other side, the Recording Artists’ Coalition warned that unless the court held for the Ronettes, “recording artists who invested their lives and their identities in making classic recordings of the 1950s and 1960s … may be denied just compensation, while record companies will obtain a financial windfall with no attendant risk or investment.”

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