Duran Duran have begun their action in the High Court in London in a case that will test the ability of UK songwriters to exercise their reversion rights under US copyright law.
The band are fighting Sony/ATV ownedEMI Music Publishing. EMI is seeking to block the band’s songwriter members from taking back control of the rights to songs on their early albums.
Duran Duran members Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor and John Taylor, and former member Andy Taylor had put EMI Music Publishing subsidiary Gloucester Place Music on notice of the reversion of the American copyrights in songs on their first three albums and the James Bond theme ‘A View To A Kill’ in 2014. The publisher has argued that under the band’s (English) contract there is no option to reclaim American rights. According to the Press Association, EMI’s lawyer, Ian Mill QC, said: “My clients entered into contracts and agreed to pay these artistes sums of money … in return for which the artistes promised to give them rights to exploit, subject to the payment of those sums, for the full term of copyright” and that “these writers have agreed that they will not seek to obtain a reversion of their copyrights under Section 203 [of the US Copyright Act] and they are in breach of contract should they do so”.
Duran Duran’s lawyer Michael Block QC said that efforts by the publisher to block the band from exercising their reversion rights were “shameful” adding “If the publishers were right, the English court may serve as an offshore haven for any of their ilk who wish to defeat the protective provisions of the US – the principal market for popular music in the English language – or any similar legislation elsewhere” and the EMI were attenpting to spin “bland language” in old contracts to create “a precedent to which they have no right”.
Band member Nick Rhodes told reporters at the High Court: “US copyright law clearly states that songwriters are permitted to apply for a reversion of their copyrights after a 35 year period. This provision was instigated to help rebalance the often unfair deals which artists sign early in their careers when they have little choice to try to get their first break, with no negotiating power and virtually no understanding of what their copyrights really mean for the future”.
Gloucester Place Music has won this case: having argued in court that Duran Duran had breached publishing agreements by serving notices to terminate the grant to the company of US copyrights of their first three albums, Mr Justice Arnold agreed and said: “Not without hesitation, I have come to the conclusion that the [Gloucester Place] interpretation of the agreements is the correct one,” he said on Friday” and “I conclude that [the group members] have acted in breach of the agreements by serving the notices, or, where they have not yet taken effect, will do so if they are not withdrawn.”
Sony/ATV issued the following statement: “We are gratified by the court’s decision to interpret this matter in the way we believe is consistent with the intention of the contracts when they were entered into. EMI has nothing but the highest respect and admiration for Duran Duran and their great songs. This has not been about seeking to challenge the U.S. laws on copyright terminations but simply a contractual issue in the jurisdiction of the U.K. courts to clarify the parties’ rights on various songs.”