The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was masterful with a guitar and had a sweet way with words. But the late “singing rabbi” hit a flat note when it came to paperwork: The chasidic maestro rarely penned contracts, licenses or copyrights — and never composed a will.
As a result, a multimillion-dollar global music industry flourishes in Carlebach’s name, with family members virtually frozen out of the proceeds. They hope that is about to change, however.
Carlebach’s sole heirs, daughters Neshama and Nedara, filed suit Tuesday in a Manhattan federal court against eight companies for copyright infringement of their father’s music. The lawsuit seeks some $2.6 million in damages from these record companies, distributors and Judaica shops, claiming they are profiting from more than 100 bootleg recordings. By law, the Carlebach sisters inherited their father’s intellectual property and have registered most of his songs with the United States copyright office, according to the lawsuit.
The defendants include Aderet Music Corp., Aderet Record Co., Mostly Music and the owner of these three Brooklyn entities, Mendel Werdyger. The other defendants are Noam Productions and Galpaz Productions in Jerusalem, and West Side Judaica, Eichlers and Feller’s Judaica and Gift Gallery in Manhattan.
Since Carlebach’s death in 1994, hundreds of his recordings, pirated and legitimate, have been produced and sold. Classic Shlomo tunes to songs such as “Am Yisroel Chai,” “Essa Einai” and “Ana Hashem” are played at concerts, weddings and bar mitzvahs. His liturgical arrangements have become fixtures of ecstatic prayer services at synagogues around the world. His melodies are struck up, sometimes spontaneously, at festivals and pubs throughout Israel.
The lawsuit, filed in a federal court of the Southern District of New York, kicks off an effort by the Carlebach sisters to rescue their father’s legacy from unlawful reproductions, their lawyers said. Future efforts will be made to negotiate royalty fees with large festivals and top performers that play his music, they said.
The lawsuit also claims that Aderet, Mostly Music and Noam Productions were violating a 1998 settlement agreement to pay biannual royalties to Carlebach’s daughters. That deal came after the two women filed suit against the companies in a California court.
A representative of Noam Productions, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Forward in a telephone interview from Jerusalem that the latest suit was a “surprise.” The representative claimed that the 1998 settlement never required Noam to pay anything beyond a lump sum up front, which Noam did. Aside from Fellers and Galpaz, which could not be reached before press time, representatives of the rest of the companies said that they were unaware of the suit and declined to comment.
Some of Carlebach’s religious followers said that while his daughters should receive some remuneration for his music, taking the case to court is not in the spirit of their father’s philosophy. These followers worried that plans to ask performers for fees may deter artists from playing Carlebach’s music.
“It’s anti-Shlomo,” Barbara Kitai, a member for 21 years of the Carlebach Shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said of the lawsuit. Kitai, who was a close friend of Carlebach, said that with strict enforcement of the copyrights, artists will “always have to worry who will take them to court.”
But a lawyer for the Carlebach sisters, Cory Baker, of the New York-based law firm of Tucker and Latifi, countered that while his clients want to regulate Carlebach’s music within the “commercial marketplace,” they seek no control over the global dissemination of Carlebach’s teachings, prayer services and non-commercial performances.
In a joint statement to the Forward, Neshama, who has launched her own successful music career, and Nedara said: “It truly breaks our hearts to see how badly and unjustly [our father] has been repaid for his unconditional giving. And it is especially sad because some of those who are the worst offenders are religious Jews who hide behind the claim they act in the name of G-D and holiness. We pray that somehow this is rectified. We pray that one day, after all these years, our father can truly rest in peace.”
The Carlebach sisters received verbal support from their father’s closest counterpart in the non-Orthodox world, singer Debbie Friedman.
“People have totally taken advantage of the fact that his music is so widely used and they have not paid royalties and they have not given credit,” Friedman told the Forward. “People have taken unfair advantage of his family and of him. He was a lousy business person, as I am a lousy business person, because our heads are not into money.”
Copyright lawyer Joshua Kaufman told the Forward that Carlebach’s daughters have a good chance of winning the lawsuit. According to Kaufman, a partner in the Washington-based Venable law firm, as long as Carlebach did not sign away his rights, then the daughters automatically inherit his estate and should be able to collect on his recordings from anyone who profits by them, with or without a registered copyright.
“If they are his songs and he didn’t license them, they should win,” Kaufman said.