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Duran Duran Come Undone in legal battle over copyright ownership

The High Court recently gave judgment against Duran Duran after the band's attempt to challenge publisher Gloucester Place Music Ltd's assignment of copyright in the band's works, including the popular songs 'Rio' and 'Girls on Film'.

In 1980, members of the band Duran Duran entered into agreements with Tritec Music Ltd to assign the existing and future copyrights in the band's works for the full term of the copyrights to Tritec, in return for royalty payments. The agreements were governed by English Law.

Shortly before the agreements were entered into, a new piece of US legislation made it permissible to terminate outright assignments of copyright after a period of 35 years. Section 203 of the United States Copyright Act 1976 aimed to address the inequality of authors' bargaining power when entering into agreements with music publishers.

Approaching 35 years after of the agreements in 2014, Duran Duran served notices on Gloucester Place (formerly Tritec), terminating the assignment of copyright in the bands works under Section 203. The effect of the notices was to terminate the agreements with assignment of the entire copyrights back to the band.

In response Gloucester Place requested a determination from the English High Court, which found in Gloucester Place Music Ltd v Le Bon & Ors [2016] EWHC 3091 (Ch) that service of the notices, by terminating the assignment of copyright, represented a breach of contract.

The court held in favour of Gloucester Place that service of the notices under Section 203, if not withdrawn, would constitute a breach of the agreements between the parties. The court's reasoning behind the decision was as follows:

  • Under the agreements, it was clear that a reasonable person with the relevant background knowledge would have understood that the parties' intention was for the entire copyrights to be vested in Tritec for their full term.
  • 'Relevant background knowledge' was deemed to include knowledge of US copyright law and the author's ability to reclaim copyright under US law. As such, by assigning away the entire copyrights for their full term, the band were implicitly precluded from exercising rights under US law.    

Under US law, an author cannot contract away the right to terminate an agreement under which copyright is assigned. The Rome Convention allows for members states to give effect to compulsory rules of another country where those laws are closely connected with the situation. However, the Contracts (Applicable Law) Act 1990 renders the Rome Convention not applicable in the UK, so the Court did not consider this point.

The band responded to the judgement by commenting: "We are shocked that English contract law is being used to overturn artists' rights in another territory. If left untested, this judgement sets a very bad precedent for all songwriters of our era and so we are deciding how properly to proceed."

Duran Duran is expected to appeal the judgement.

Until any further judgment is received, the outcome of the case presents the position that wording in an agreement that effects the assignment of the entire copyright in a work for the full term of the copyright will be interpreted by UK courts as an intentional full term assignment.   The provisions of Section 203 of the United States Copyright Act 1976 will not override the terms of an agreement which is made under English law.    Authors wishing to terminate an assignment of copyright under Section 203 of the United States Copyright Act 1976 should specifically reserve this right in the agreement and consider making the agreement subject to US law. 

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at February 2017. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

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