A newly filed fraud lawsuit claims Detroit-based folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, whose story was documented in the 2012 Academy Award–winning film Searching for Sugar Man, was exploited by a music executive who fraudulently used his compositions and released them under false names to profit from the South African music market.
As The Hollywood Reporter notes, Rodriguez recorded two unsuccessful albums in the 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. Despite that fact, and unbeknownst to Rodriguez himself, his music had made him a superstar in South Africa, where fans embraced his songs as anti-apartheid anthems.
But only decades later, after slipping into an obscurity lined with suicide rumours, did Rodriguez make it to South Africa to discover his true success. The lawsuit in question claims that those songs, which made such an impact in South Africa, may have constituted fraud and copyright infringement.
The complaint has been filed in a Michigan federal court (read in full here) by Gomba Music, a Michigan company controlled by Harry Balk, who signed an exclusive agreement with Rodriguez. Gomba are claiming that Clarence Avant, a music executive who became chairman of the board at Motown Records, used the compositions of Rodriguez despite the fact that the musician was unable to enter a songwriter agreement.
“Upon learning that Sixto Rodriguez was signed to Gomba, however, and unable to contractually enter into a songwriter agreement with Avant, and after consulting his attorneys, Avant concocted a scheme to fraudulently conceal the writing of compositions by Sixto Rodriguez,” the complaint reads.
“Under this fraudulent scheme, compositions written by Rodriguez would falsely, fraudulently, and wrongly be credited and attributed to other individuals with whom Gomba had no agreements,” it continues.
According to the complaint, a series of individual song contracts were worked out with “Jesus Rodriguez, purportedly Sixto Rodriguez’s brother, covering the compositions actually written and composed by Sixto Rodriguez and contained on Sixto Rodriguez’s album, released commercially in the United States on Avant’s record label, Venture Records, in March 1970. The album is entitled Cold Fact.”
The complaint also notes that Rodriguez didn’t discover that Cold Fact had sold in excess of 500,000 copies until Searching for Sugar Man was released in July 2012. After the film’s release, Rodriguez reportedly hired a lawyer to look into his royalties. At the time, Avant told the Detroit Free Press, “I wish him the best. The fame will be over within a year.”
Balk’s Gomba Music is alleging that it is the true owner of Rodriguez’s songs, and that Avant has committed copyright infringement. Avant is also being sued for fraudulent concealment and tortious interference.
Watch: Searching for Sugar Man Trailer