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Warner goes legal over Frank Sinatra songs and an often forgotten British reversion right

By | Published on Wednesday 15 August 2018


Warner/Chappell has gone legal in a dispute with a company called Bourne Co over the rights in works composed by Jimmy Van Heusen, probably best known for the hits he wrote for Frank Sinatra, which included ‘Love And Marriage’ and ‘Come Fly With Me’. The dispute centres on reversion rights and the differences between US and UK law. Though not in the way you probably think.

There has been much debate of late about the so called reversion right in US copyright law, which allows songwriters who assign their copyrights to third parties to terminate those assignment agreements after 35 years. Although that right originates in 1970s copyright law, it has only properly come into effect in recent years, leading to lots of debate about how exactly it should work.

Among the questions raised is whether or not British songwriters, who signed to British music publishers, can exercise the reversion right to reclaim their copyrights in the US. Duran Duran sued Sony/ATV on this very issue and, although the publisher won at first instance, the case continues to go through the motions.

However, this new case being pursued by Warner’s music publishing division against Bourne Co is concerned with the reversion right in UK copyright law, and its impact both here, in the US, and elsewhere.

Now, there isn’t a reversion right for songwriters who assign their works in the UK. Anymore. But there was until the 1956 Copyright Act, which came into effect in 1957. Though that reversion right benefited estates rather than songwriters themselves, in that it said assigned rights could revert back to a songwriter’s estate 25 years after their death.

The dispute between Warner and Bourne centres on a 1956 agreement with Van Heusen and his publishing company. Bourne seemingly claims to control various songs previously published by Warner, on the basis it did a deal with the writer’s estate around his posthumous rights.

There seems to have been disagreements regarding the 1956 contract since the 1990s, but things came to a head in 2015, which was 25 years after Van Heusen’s death. Since then, Warner alleges, Bourne has been claiming royalties from Van Heusen’s work, including from various collecting societies around the world, which – it argues – should still be going to the major. In other cases, Bourne’s attempts to claim control of the works though the collective licensing system has caused some payments to be frozen.

There are various elements to the dispute. First of all, whether or not the 1956 agreement was properly terminated. Second, which songs in Van Heusen’s oeuvre were composed on a ‘work for hire’ basis, in which case the reversion right arguably wouldn’t apply. And third, even if some of the rights have reverted to Bourne via the estate, Warner reckons that a reversion right stemming from old English copyright law can only apply in the UK and Canada.

In the ‘summons with notice’ that it filed with the New York courts this week, Warner states: “Even if the British reversionary termination rights were applicable to any of the songs – and it is not, in any event, applicable to any of the songs written on a work for hire basis, nor is it applicable to songs written and delivered after 1956 and subject to post-1956 agreements, which Bourne has failed to provide – such termination rights would only be applicable, on information and belief, to Britain and Canada and not to any of the other countries in which Bourne has caused the income from the songs (including income payable by Bourne to the heirs of the songwriters) to be diverted and/or frozen, depriving Warner of, upon information and belief, hundreds of thousands of dollars, even without the addition of interest at 9% per annum since the date such payments were diverted and/or frozen”.

Which is quite a sentence. Bourne is yet to respond to Warner’s claims, but if it does get to court, it will be another interesting test of how reversion rights form one copyright system apply around the world.