Maryland woman claims record company mislabeled ‘clean version’ CD
A Maryland woman is suing Atlantic Records, claiming the company engaged in “deceptive and misleading practices” under the state's Consumer Protection Act by failing to place a parental advisory sticker on a rap CD.
The suit comes as Congress considers legislation to punish entertainment companies that market adult-oriented material to minors for violating federal regulations against deceptive advertising.
Renee Perkins, who bought Trick Daddy's “Thugs Are Us” CD to play for her son's eighth grade graduation party, said the album, labeled as a “clean version,” contained sexually explicit lyrics that were supposed to be deleted.
The complaint, filed June 19 in Montgomery County as a class action on behalf of other purchasers, also names as defendants Atlantic's parent company AOL Time Warner and Slip-N-Slide Records, a Miami-based record label.
Perkins, who purchased the CD at a Prince George's County record store, is seeking the cost of the recording, attorneys' fees and “further relief as [the] court deems appropriate.”
“(Perkins) listened to the album prior to the party and became shocked, embarrassed and then angry when she (heard) the bonus track,” the suit states.
According to the suit, a bonus track by Deuce Poppi includes the following lyrics that Perkins said were offensive and inappropriate for her 11-year-old son: “Yo Deuce Poppi with a trick in the house, gonna wake up in the mornin' with a (expletive deleted) in her mouth.”
Perkins' attorney Jon D. Pels bought additional copies of the CD and confirmed that other copies sold with the “clean version” sticker also included the same explicit lyrics said Lawrence Anderson, Pels' co-counsel.
“It is clear from the album that defendants attempt to 'mix' over the sexually explicit lyrics but on numerous occasions just miss the intended words such that they remain clearly discernable,” the complaint states. “Extremely explicit language is present on an album that defendants endorse as having none and this violates Maryland's version of the Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Law,” the suit contends.
Anderson says the Recording Industry Association of America, which oversees the industry's parental advisory program, wants consumers to rely on the labels, but they aren't reliable.
“Parents can use the label to identify music that may not be appropriate for their children and make the choice about when — and whether — their children should be able to have that recording,” RIAA states on its Web site.
Anderson says RIAA gives specific guidelines to recording companies to use when determining whether a record should include a parental advisory label and that Atlantic did not follow these guidelines.
He referred to a section of the guidelines, found on RIAA's Web site, to prove his point.
“A label may still be warranted on a recording after profanity is removed,” the guidelines state. “Please keep in mind that depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse must also be considered when making a determination regarding the application of the parental advisory label.”
On its Web site, Atlantic Records describes “Thugs Are Us” as an album “filled with all-new turbulent tales of Southern-style street life.” The “Thugs Are Us” version that Perkins purchased was labeled “clean” because some songs were dropped from the album, Dawn Bridges, spokeswoman for Warner Music Group, was quoted as saying in a June 21 Washington Post article.
“These sorts of lawsuits are counterproductive, because they effectively penalize record companies and artists trying to follow the RIAA's voluntary labeling program,” a June 25 Billboard article quoted Bridges as saying. “If record companies and artists can be sued just because one parent or judge believes that an album was improperly labeled, then that discourages all record companies from labeling, which means everyone … loses.”
Perkins' suit comes as U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is pushing a bill to punish entertainment companies for marketing adult-oriented material to children.
The Media Marketing and Accountability Act would direct the Federal Trade Commission to monitor the music, movie and television industries for false and deceptive advertising. Entertainment companies found to be marketing adult material to minors would be subject to fines.
Critics say the proposal tramples on free speech and could lead to the end of voluntary ratings and labels. Cary Sherman, general counsel of RIAA, said by targeting items that already are rated or have labels, the bill would encourage companies to provide less information to parents.
“By essentially punishing those who adopt voluntary guidelines, the legislation would have the unintentional result of discouraging participation in the successful parental advisory program,” Sherman told the Associated Press.
Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said Perkins' suit may have a similar effect by leading record companies to stop voluntarily labeling recordings out of fear that more unsatisfied customers may sue.
“I think this case illustrates the truth of the maxim, 'No good deed goes unpunished,' ” Kirtley said. “From the day the record companies adopted the labeling policy this type of lawsuit was waiting to happen.”
Someone is always going to argue that the labeling is misleading or inaccurate, she said. “The only surprising thing to me is that it took this long to happen.”
“I don't think record (companies) should place labels on any CD,” Eric Nuzum, author of Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America, told freedomforum.org. “They're not useful at all,” he said. “Parents put a lot more credence on those stickers than they should.”
Nuzum said parents assume that because a CD includes an advisory label that the recording contains no profanity or material that some might find offensive. “I think it's dangerous for parents to assume that record companies can parent their children,” he said.
“Parents should supervise their children's media consumption and not rely on an entertainment company, a government regulator or a filtering system … to decide what is suitable for an individual child,” she said.
When a recording is labeled ” 'clean' there's no implication that it's completely free of something that may offend someone,” Nuzum said.
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David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.