A View to Kill Copyright Reversion – Duran Duran Lose Legal Battle

Posted: December 5, 2016

Gloucester Place Music Limited v Simon Le Bon & others [2016] EWHC 3091 (Ch).  The Chancery Division of the High Court has ruled against members of Duran Duran and others (Defendants) in their copyright battle with publisher Gloucester Place Music Limited (Claimant)

Background

In the early 80s, each member of Duran Duran entered music publishing agreements with the Claimant.  The band wrote a total of 37 songs in the period of these agreements, including a number of their best known songs such as “Rio”, “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “Girls on Film”.

Under US copyright law, a grant of rights can be terminated 35 years after the execution of that grant. In 2014, the Defendants served notices terminating their assignment of copyright under the publishing agreements in accordance with US copyright law.

The Claimant sought declarations that the Defendants had acted in breach of the publishing agreements by serving such notices.

Issues

The issues considered in this case included the relevance of US copyright law to the proceedings and the interpretation of the publishing agreements.

Assessment and Decision

Relevance of US copyright law

Due to the parties’ express choice of law in the publishing agreements, there was no dispute that the High Court had exclusive jurisdiction and that English law was the applicable law.  Despite this, US copyright law played an important role in the background of the dispute.

The Claimant argued that US copyright law was irrelevant to the dispute other than forming part of the background to the case.

The Defendants sought to rely on a certain part of their solicitor’s witness statement, namely that a US court would not allow a claim for breach of contract in this instance, because “the statutory termination right supersedes any contractual right” and that “this applies whether the contract was governed under English or US law”.

The court agreed with the Claimant on this issue.  This was decided on a number of grounds, such as the fact that neither the Defendants nor the Claimant had sought nor obtained permission to adduce expert evidence as to US law; the Defendants’ solicitor had no expertise in US law; and the Defendants’ solicitor did not cite any authority for the statement.  As a result, Mr Justice Arnold held that the evidence was neither admissible nor relevant.

Interpretation of written agreements

The Claimant put forward that the members of Duran Duran were precluded from the termination right under US copyright law due to the absence of an express reservation of that right in the publishing agreements.  The Claimant supported this assertion by relying on the specific wording of clauses of the agreements that referred to “entire copyrights” and the band members agreeing not to “grant transfer or assign any interest in the copyright…to any other person firm or corporation”.  It was argued that “entire copyrights” included the full term of copyright.

The Defendants put forward that US copyrights are inherently subject to the right of termination, and due to the absence of any express prohibition to exercise that right, the band members were entitled to do so.  This was supported by asserting that the clauses only dealt with the transfer of copyright, not the creation of any restrictions of rights after this transfer had been made.

Mr Justice Arnold ruled in favour of the Claimant, albeit “not without hesitation”, on the grounds that the wording of certain clauses in the publishing agreements was wide and general and as a result the reasonable person would understand them as having the intention of vesting the full term of copyright.  This in turn implicitly precluded the members of Duran Duran from exercising any termination right.

Comment

This case is an important one.  It suggests that the language of an English law contract can trump the reversionary interest inherent in US copyright law.  It is a significant victory for publishers who habitually contract under English law.  However, it may not be the end of the road; it seems that this decision is likely to be appealed.

Written by Calum Bryant (Trainee Solicitor)