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Duran Duran go to court to test reach of US copyright reversion right

By | Published on Tuesday 15 November 2016

Duran Duran

Duran Duran were in the High Court in London yesterday 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 controlled EMI Music Publishing, which is trying to block the band’s members from taking back control of the song rights in their early albums.

This all relates to the bit of American copyright law that gives songwriters who assign their works to third parties the right to reclaim said copyrights after 35 years. Although this all originates in a 1978 law, because of the way it was applied to works already published at that time, the whole thing only really kicked in a few years ago, and the intricacies of the reversion rights system are still being tested.

To exercise the reversion right, songwriters must first put their publisher on notice. But when Duran Duran members Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor and John Taylor, and former member Andy Taylor, did just that to EMI Music Publishing subsidiary Gloucester Place Music over the American song rights in their first three albums and Bond theme ‘A View To A Kill’, the publisher cried foul.

Legal reps for the publisher argue that under the band’s English contract there is no option to reclaim American rights. According to the Press Association, its 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”.

Insisting the case centred on “pure contractual construction”, he argued that the wording of the band’s publishing agreement from way back in the day meant 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”.

Not so, reckoned Michael Block QC, speaking for Duran Duran. Dubbing efforts by the publisher to block the band from exercising their reversion rights “shameful”, the legal man said that, more than a simple contractual dispute, this case could set a dangerous precedent.

“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”, he argued.

The other side were trying to spin “bland language” in old contracts to create “a precedent to which they have no right”, he added.

Speaking outside the court, band member Rhodes told reporters: “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”.

Continuing: “When we registered a request, in 2014, for the reversion of our eligible copyrights in America, we understood it to be a formality. Regrettably Sony/ATV have decided to challenge our rights under the premise of a contractual technicality in the UK and have elected to take legal action against us. We felt we had absolutely no choice but to stand up for ourselves, and indeed all other artists, who are likely to suffer similar circumstances”.

With many other British songwriters of the early 1980s likely sitting on similar publishing contracts to Duran Duran, plenty of writers and their legal reps, not to mention music publishers, will be watching this case closely.