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Sex Pistols in court over sync deals and a 1988 band agreement

By | Published on Friday 16 July 2021

John Lydon

A legal squabble between members of the Sex Pistols reached the High Court in London yesterday. Officially it’s a dispute over whether or not John Lydon can block the licensing of the band’s music for a new TV series based on the memoir of his former bandmate Steve Jones. However, Lydon argues it’s bigger than just that.

The new TV series is directed by Danny Boyle and is called ‘Pistol’. It’s based on Jones’s book ‘Lonely Boy: Tales Of A Sex Pistol’ and – the network that commissioned the show explained earlier this year – tells “his story as a member of one of music’s most notorious bands – the Sex Pistols”.

Needless to say, it’s a programme that would be a whole lot better if it included some music from, you know, the Sex Pistols. But would Lydon ever sign off on his former band’s music being used in a project that takes a very Jones-centric view of the Sex Pistols story? And which is based on a book which Lydon himself has said paints him “in a hostile and unflattering light”?

Clearly the answer to that question is “no”. Which leads us to the next question – which is what’s at the heart of this case. Is Lydon’s approval necessary if the majority of his former bandmates are happy for a music licence to be issued to the makers of ‘Pistol’?

Obviously, under UK copyright law, by default where you have co-ownership of a copyright all the co-owners need to approve any use of the copyright protected work. However, contracts agreed between creators who collaborated on a work might limit the right of veto of any one co-owner.

It’s a contract of that kind that is being presented by Steve Jones and another former Sex Pistol, Paul Cook, in this case. They argue that a 1988 agreement between the former bandmates allows a licence to be issued for the use of their music if a majority of band members agree. And, they add, Jones and Cook have the support of the other interested parties here – ie Glen Matlock and the estate of Sid Vicious – in licensing the band’s music to the ‘Pistol’ series.

For his part, Lydon claims that licensing decisions must be unanimous and that any one former band member has a veto over any deals. Meanwhile, according to his lawyer, Lydon equates that 1988 agreement to “slave labour” and “prison”.

The aim of this court case is to decide who is right regarding the impact of the 1988 agreement. According to the Telegraph, the legal rep for Jones and Cook, Edmund Cullen, told the court yesterday “whether [Lydon] regards the agreement as ‘slave labour’ or not, the fact is he signed it, he did so willingly in exchange for the ability to sell his publishing rights for a large sum of money”.

On the Lydon side, his legal rep Mark Cunningham was keen to position this spat as part of a bigger dispute. That argument goes that Jones, Cook and their manager Anita Camarata – who is an exec producer on ‘Pistol’ and previously produced the 2000 Sex Pistols film ‘The Filth And The Fury’ – are basically staging a coup to take control of his former band’s legacy.

“There is an elephant in the room here”, said Cunningham. “This case is not just about ‘Pistol’. My client’s fear is that if the declarations sought are made, it hands to Ms Camarata – and let’s be straight – complete control over his interest and legacy as regards the Sex Pistols”.

Lydon, his lawyer added, “feels extremely strongly that this is an attempt by Ms Camarata basically to annex him as part of her commercial empire”.

The court hearing will continue today with Jones due to give testimony.