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Lessons from the Duran Duran copyright case


Pop group Duran Duran recently lost a High Court battle to reclaim copyright to some of their most famous songs. Jack Stephenson, from Harrison Drury’s corporate team, looks at the implications for anyone entering into a commercial agreement.

In this recent high-profile court case, the group argued that under US intellectual property law they were entitled to call for a reversion of their copyright after a period of 35 years. The aim of this law is to give artists the option to escape contracts after 35 years and reclaim ownership of their copyright.

What is copyright?

In the UK, copyright is covered by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 and aims to protect literary, musical, artistic and dramatic works, provided such works are “original”. Copyright in a song can arise automatically upon creation at various levels.

For example, there may be copyright protection in the music and the lyrics of a song. The author of the music or lyrics is usually the first owner of the copyright and it can last as long as the life of the author and 70 years from their death.

What happened in this case?

Copyright reversion has been used by various US artists including Billy Joel and Blondie. However in this case, Gloucester Place Music argued that Duran Duran were ultimately prevented from doing so under English contract law.

The case arose after Duran Duran served notices under the US Copyright Act 1976 in an effort to reclaim their copyright.

Gloucester then sought a declaration that the group had acted in breach of agreements which they signed in the 1980s. The agreements covered various hit songs including “Rio” and “A View to a Kill” and contained clauses assigning the worldwide copyright in works written or composed by members of the group in exchange for various payments.

The court decided that the assignment clause was sufficiently wide so that all of the copyright covered by the agreement was vested, and remains vested, in Gloucester for the full term of the copyright. As a result, the group were unable to exercise their rights under US law.

What are the effects of this case?

After the case, Nick Rhodes, of Duran Duran, stated: “We signed a publishing agreement as unsuspecting teenagers, over three decades ago, when just starting out and when we knew no better.

“Today, we are told that language in that agreement allows our long-time publishers, Sony/ATV (the ultimate company owning Gloucester), to override our statutory rights under US law.

“This gives wealthy publishing companies carte blanche to take advantage of the songwriters who built their fortune over many years, and strips songwriters of their right to rebalance this reward.

“If left untested, this judgment sets a very bad precedent for all songwriters of our era.”

This case demonstrates the importance of seeking legal advice when entering into long term commercial agreements, particularly those of a potentially high value.

If you have any queries regarding commercial contracts or intellectual property, Jack Stephenson is a solicitor in the corporate and commercial department at Harrison Drury and can be contacted on 01772 25321.

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