Music has been big business for a long time. The rewards for artists and their record companies, as everyone knows, can be immense. Not surprisingly, this means that the rights which make money from the music at the heart of it all are jealously guarded.
The most recent example to reach the news has been Duran Duran’s unsuccessful defence of a claim brought by a company, Gloucester Place Music (now owned by Sony/ATV). It has generated plenty of headlines mainly because of the comments made after the judgment by the understandably disgruntled band members.
“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” were the words of founding member Nick Rhodes and they were echoed by Simon Le Bon when he said “Sony/ATV has earned a tremendous amount of money from us over the years. Working to find a way to do us out of our rights feels like the ugly and old-fashioned face of imperialist, corporate greed.”
The dispute did not involve copyright infringement as such. The court actually had to decide the meaning of the terms of contracts that the band members signed up to in 1980, just before they broke into the mainstream. This was important because in 2014 Duran Duran had served notices on Gloucester Place terminating the assignment of the US copyright under the contracts – US law gives original copyright owners the right to do this 35 years after the copyright was granted – with the result that the future royalties from them would go to the band members and not Gloucester Place. Gloucester Place said that they couldn’t do that because the contracts stated that the band members had assigned “worldwide copyright” to their present and future works for “the lifetime of copyright in them” in return for their advances.
The Court agreed. It decided that anyone reading the contracts would assume that it was the parties’ intention that the copyright would be granted to Gloucester Place and stay with it for the ‘full term’ of the copyright (i.e. not just 35 years) and that there was no evidence that it was the parties’ intention for those rights to return at any point in the future. Duran Duran therefore could not serve the US copyright notices without being in breach of contract.