A decision from the UK High Court of Justice today has ruled against Duran Duran over the band’s attempt to reclaim, stateside, the publishing copyrights on over three dozen songs including some of their most well-known hits, “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
United States copyright law allows for the authors of works to terminate copyrights they had assigned, usually to a publisher (in Duran Duran’s case the company Tritec Music Ltd., now Sony/ATV) after a period of 35 years, a provision designed to give artists a stab at receiving payment in the late life of their work. In 2014, Duran Duran attempted to take advantage of that provision, which in turn generated a lawsuit against them and the band members’ various holding companies.
Sony Music argued that the original publishing agreements between the band’s members and their publishing company made those agreements subject solely to British law, and that the contracts also reverted any stateside copyrights back to the (UK-based) publishing company, essentially making the copyright term on their songs subject to the UK’s terms, which is for the life of the artist plus 70 years.
“This has not been about seeking to challenge the U.S. laws on copyright terminations but simply a contractual issue in the jurisdiction of the U.K. courts to clarify the parties’ rights on various songs,” the company said in a statement.
Judge Richard Arnold found, “not without hesitation,” that “any termination notices filed by the band were voided by these provisions in their contract.”
However, despite a passionate response in the UK to the decision, US-based copyright termination expert Lisa Alter of Alter, Kendrick & Baron characterizes the decision as “very very limited,” due to the ex parte nature of the case, which prevented the parties from citing experts on US copyright law, meaning the case centered solely on the question of contract breach by Duran Duran.
“Over the years,” Alter tells Billboard, “there have been many, many contracts made outside of the United States, under local law, where songwriters or their heirs have successfully served notice of termination. In the US, any effort to circumvent that would be deemed void, because the termination right was inalienable.”
In a statement on the news, Duran Duran writes of its deep disappointment at the decision, and argues that “this flies in the face of a US Federal statute which prevents a contract being used to avoid returning rights to the creators.”
The group’s singer, Simon Le Bon, continued, saying: “What artist would ever want to sign to a company like Sony/ATV as this is how they treat songwriters with whom they have enjoyed tremendous success for many years.”