The High Court has ruled against pop group Duran Duran in its fight to reclaim copyright in some of its most famous songs. The group argued US laws allowed them the right to request reversion of copyright after 35 years, for well-known tracks, such as Girls on Film and A View to a Kill. But Gloucester Place Music (Gloucester), part of EMI Music Publishing, successfully argued that English contract law prevented this. The ruling is a test case, with the outcome impacting many UK artists, who have similar contracts with music publishers.
Gloucester sought a declaration that Duran Duran acted in breach of various publishing and associated agreements by serving a series of notices (like many other artists including Billy Joel and Blondie) under s.203 US Copyright Act 1976. This provision allows authors of works to terminate copyright assignment agreements after a period of 35 years.
The agreements between the band and Gloucester assigned the copyright worldwide in works written or composed by members of Duran Duran in exchange for payment of advances and royalties. The agreements dated back to 1980 and covered 37 hit songs, including Rio and Hungry Like The Wolf. There was no dispute over the facts of the case; the issue was of interpretation, as the agreements were governed by English law.
Judge Arnold held the language of the assignment clause was wide and general. This would convey to a reasonable person that it was the parties’ intention for the entire copyright in the compositions to vest, and remain vested, in Gloucester for the copyright’s full term. This ultimately meant that Duran Duran could not exercise its rights under US law, as it would result in the premature termination of Gloucester’s copyright ownership. Judge Arnold concluded that Duran Duran had breached its agreements by serving the UK copyright notices and would continue to do so if they were not withdrawn.
What is copyright?
In the UK, copyright is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which aims to protect literary, musical, artistic and dramatic works provided such works are “original”. Copyright in songs can vest automatically upon creation at several levels. A song will attract a panoply of rights, from protection of the musical score to the lyrics. The first owner of the works is the individual author of the respective lyrics and/or composition. The duration of copyright is lengthy and in most cases lasts 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.
What does this mean?
As Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran stated: “We signed a publishing agreement as unsuspecting teenagers… when just starting out and when we knew no better”. The case demonstrates the importance for artists to understand the long-term implications of their contracts with music publishers and similar bodies, particularly when the length of their career is unpredictable at an early stage. What may seem like a good deal in the beginning of an artist’s career, may have significant financial and legal ramifications later on. It is yet to be seen whether Duran Duran will appeal the decision or whether similar cases will follow suit; however it will be an area of great importance to UK songwriters.