Duran Duran “outraged and saddened” after losing copyright reversion right case
By Chris Cooke | Published on Monday 5 December 2016
Duran Duran have told reporters that they are “outraged and saddened” after losing a High Court case that examined the reach of the reversion right in US copyright law, and whether or not the specifics of English copyright assignment contracts can overrule that right. On Friday a High Court judge decided that yes, they can.
As previously reported, this all relates to the bit of American copyright law that gives songwriters who assign their works to third parties the right to reclaim said copyrights after 35 years. Although this all originates in a 1978 law, because of the way it was applied to works already published at that time, the whole thing only really kicked in a few years ago, and the intricacies of the reversion rights system are still being tested.
The Duran Duran case tested whether the reversion right meant that songwriters who assigned their copyrights to music publishers outside the US could still automatically reclaim control of their songs within America after 35 years.
When Duran Duran members Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor and John Taylor, and former member Andy Taylor, filed the required paperwork to reclaim the American song rights in their first three albums and Bond theme ‘A View To A Kill’, their publisher – Sony/ATV controlled Gloucester Place Music – insisted that their 1980s publishing contract, governed by English law, didn’t allow any such reversion.
The case arrived in court last month, with lawyers for Gloucester Place Music insisting that this dispute was entirely one of contractual interpretation. Legal reps for Duran Duran said that if Gloucester Place Music won it would set a dangerous precedent, in that publishers could circumvent songwriter rights provided by US law through the UK courts.
On Friday, judge Richard Arnold concurred with the publisher, ruling that the wording of Duran Duran’s publishing agreement “would have conveyed to a reasonable person… that the parties’ intention was that the ‘entire copyrights’ in the compositions should vest, and remain vested, in the claimant for the ‘full term’ of the copyrights”. Which is to say that the US reversion right, which already existed at the time the publishing deal was done, would not apply when 35 years were up.
Responding to the ruling, Rhodes said, according to the BBC: “We are shocked that English contract law is being used to overturn artists’ rights in another territory. We signed a publishing agreement as unsuspecting teenagers, over three decades ago, when just starting out and when we knew no better. Today, we are told that language in that agreement allows our long-time publishers, Sony/ATV, to override our statutory rights under US law”.
He continued: “This gives wealthy publishing companies carte blanche to take advantage of the songwriters who built their fortune over many years, and strips songwriters of their right to rebalance this reward. If left untested, this judgment sets a very bad precedent for all songwriters of our era”.
It’s true that many UK songwriters with publishing contracts from the same era were watching the Duran Duran case with interest, as it could have an impact on their own attempts to exercise the reversion right in the US, something plenty of British songwriters have been investigating of late. Noting that, Le Bon told reporters that: “I know that other artists in similar positions will be as outraged and saddened as we are [about the ruling]”.
Meanwhile, one copyright law specialist, Robert Lundie Smith of law firm EIP, said that the judgement illustrated the importance of covering all the specifics in copyright assignment contracts, noting that the judge had said “as is so often the case, the dispute in this case arises because the music publishing agreements do not explicitly address the issue in question”.
Lundie Smith said on Friday: “The issue in this case – and so many others – is that the relevant right was not expressly addressed. Where this happens it will leave the door open for legal uncertainty and, in big money cases, litigation”.
He went on: “Firstly, the judge found as a fact, that when entering into the contract, the parties were in general terms aware of the relevant provision of US law that might – but as found today did not – have given the band the right to terminate the agreement and regain the US copyrights in their works”.
“Secondly, the contract being considered by the court – which was a worldwide agreement – was expressly governed by English law and the parties had agreed to give the English courts exclusive jurisdiction to hear any disputes. The judgment also indicates that the band did not seek to rely upon any expert evidence of US law. This is a dispute where the parties do not appear to have themselves – at the time – considered that a court in London should not rule upon this issue”.
He concluded: “Finally, the dispute was not about whether English law could over-ride that of a US statutory right. The question for the court was, in essence, whether the right to terminate the agreement under US law had been retained by the band under the agreement – which is governed by English law – or not. It is perhaps a fine distinction, but it is an important distinction nonetheless”.
It remains to be seen what Duran Duran do next, and what impact this judgement has on other British songwriters seeking to reclaim the American rights in their older songs.