Published: 06 March 2017
Area of Law: Intellectual Property
Duran Duran loses its copyright battle with SonyATV
The High Court recently ruled that members of the pop group Duran Duran were not entitled to have the copyright back from SonyATV in relation to some of their most famous songs. The decision highlights the care that needs to be taken when negotiating music deals that last for many years.
Duran Duran entered into a number of agreements with SonyATV granting exclusive worldwide rights to a number of their hits for the entire copyright term. Under English law, copyright protection lasts for 70 years from the death of the last known author.
However, under the US Copyright Act there is a legal right for a copyright owner to force the return of any rights after 35 years. This right is intended to redress the perceived imbalance in negotiating power between young artists and large publishing corporations, so that the latter cannot hold onto the rights for such a long time unless the deal is renegotiated.
So in 2014 Duran Duran asked SonyATV to return the exclusive right to exploit 37 compositions, despite the original deal running for longer.
Unfortunately for the band members, SonyATV successfully argued that the US law did not apply to their relationship. The legal agreements were expressly stated to be governed by English law and it had no similar rights to the US position. The judge stated that Duran Duran had given away the exclusive rights for the entire copyright period and were therefore unable to go and reach a deal with a new record label.
What rights are you granting?
It remains common practice in many publishing licences for artists to hand over exclusive rights to the copyright for the entire copyright period without any early ‘get out’ provisions. And English law does not have an equivalent to the US copyright Act. So once a deal has been signed, artists have to leave the exploitation of their work with the record label. The only early way out might be if the record label doesn’t fulfil its obligations.
This case will have been closely watched by record labels and artists alike, many of whom will have entered into very similar publisher licensing agreements. Whilst some observers might view the ruling as unfair, the decision does seem to be in line with generally accepted English law contractual principles.
The case also demonstrates the importance of taking time to give thorough consideration of the rights that an artist grants to a record label (or publisher), as well as choosing carefully which law applies.