Friday 2 December 2016

Duran Duran and reversion of copyright

BBC News reports that the popular music combination Duran Duran have lost a claim in the High Court in which their music publishers sought to prevent them from serving notice to recover their U.S. copyright. Gloucester Place Music Ltd v Le Bon & Ors [2016] EWHC 3091 (Ch) (02 December 2016) is a relatively short (45 paragraph) judgment of Mr Justice Arnold, in his own words 'not without hesitation'. But there was little that he could do: the contract seems pretty clear. The various copyrights (and I don't like using the plural, though it seems appropriate here) were assigned for their full term, and to try to use section 203 of the U.S. Copyright Act to reclaim the rights after the statutory 35 years was contrary to the terms of the contract and amounted to a derogation from grant (reminding me again of BL v Armstrong, which I have been making my students in Nottingham read recently - it's good for the soul).

But surely (I hear you say) the statute overrides the contract? The right to a reversion of the copyright can't be contracted out of, can it? It seems that it can't - at least, on my reading of the provision, and perhaps a friend in the States will comment on this - but the parties went off to court under Part 8 on the basis that there was no dispute about the facts of the case, and the effect of the foreign law is a question of fact: and accordingly the defendants did not seek to adduce evidence evidence about U.S. law. Arnold J was asked only to interpret the contract, and that didn't create much difficulty for him.

It seems from the judgment that the defendants also failed to raise in the proper way a public policy point - although the learned judge indicated that he wasn't receptive to it anyway. There seems some merit in saying that an English-law contract, in which the parties agreed that the English courts should have jurisdiction, should not be allowed to interfere with the operation of a foreign statute.

Finally, the band members, quoted by the BBC, were miffed that they were suffering under a contract signed when they were young and innocent - a common complaint in the entertainment business, so much so that by 1980, when they signed up with the publisher, lawyers would take great care to make the contracts bulletproof. Their argument loses a lot of force, though, when you read the opening paragraphs of the judgment and learn that the 1980 contract had been terminated in 1983 and replaced with contracts with the band members' service companies. They might have been young still in 1983, but they were less innocent and presumably well-advised.

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