Pistols at dawn - Johnny Rotten loses battle with former bandmates over consent to song use

September 21, 2021

Former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones were successful in a claim against the band’s former singer John Lydon (also known as Johnny Rotten), after the frontman attempted to veto the use of Sex Pistols songs in an upcoming television drama.[1]  The dispute turned on the construction, effect and enforceability of a band agreement, which entitled a majority of band members to outvote the minority on licensing decisions.

Mr Lydon argued that, on the true construction of the agreement, he was not obliged to give his consent to licensing arrangements, even if outvoted – or alternatively that the claimants were estopped from asserting their claims, on the basis that the agreement had never been relied on in the past and the band members had in fact always had an individual veto.  Yet the High Court found an implied term that Mr Lydon would give his consent once outvoted, and that the claimants always retained the contractual right to outvote Mr Lydon on licensing arrangements, and so were not estopped from raising such arguments.

Comment

The case highlights potential difficulties in relying on an estoppel argument, and the level of factual analysis involved, where the parties’ actions, representations and beliefs are scrutinised in detail.  Mr Lydon raised over a dozen examples (of varying weight) where, in his view, the band members had shifted to a system of vetoes and unanimity rather than majority rule.  The judge, Sir Anthony Mann, dealt with each of these, even where they had been abandoned by Mr Lydon during the course of proceedings, but found none of them to advance his case on estoppel.

Mr Lydon could point to a number of instances where either Mr Lydon or Mr Matlock had been the sole objector, and the project in question did not go ahead.  Yet in those cases Sir Anthony accepted Ms Camarata’s evidence that she had not sought to overrule Mr Lydon’s (or Mr Matlock’s) objections in the interests of preserving “consensuality” and group harmony, but this was not tantamount to an assumption or representation that the BMA had been abandoned.  Nor was it indicative that a veto system was in place, even though it effectively amounted to “a veto in practical terms”.  The BMA remained operative.

The judge recognised that Mr Lydon’s “difficult relationships” with other band members persisted even through their comeback tours in the 1990s and 2002 and still persist.  Nonetheless, in a joint statement issued following the judgment, Mr Jones and Mr Cook remained optimistic that the former bandmates could “move forward and hopefully work together in the future with better relations”.  Yet Mr Lydon, so frequently in the minority regarding commercial decision-making, might disagree.  More “Anarchy in the UK” in future, we suspect.

To read the full article, click here.  Written for Entertainment Law Review.

To read our earlier bulletin on the case, click here.

Tom Iverson
Tom Iverson
Tom Iverson
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Partner
Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore
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Associate

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