Duran Duran have lost their UK action to reclaim the US copyright in the songs comprising their first 3 albums.
Under US copyright law, songwriters who assign their rights to Publishers get a second bite of the cherry, as, notwithstanding the terms of individual publishing agreements, the songs can revert to the writer after 35 years. This law was enacted by Congress to give songwriters the chance to renegotiate terms and get more from their existing Publisher or a new Publisher. Congress recognised that this was just because Publishing agreements signed early in a Writer’s career can be very one-sided in favour of the Publisher and may be signed by Writers without a full understanding of what they are giving away.
In order to exercise the right, the songwriter has to give notice of the reversion to their Publisher. Duran Duran did this to EMI Publishing (now owned by Sony ATV).
The Publisher fought back, claiming that the wording of the Band’s original Publishing agreement, signed when they were youngsters, granted rights in their songs to the Publisher for the life of copyright, and therefore effectively waived the Band’s right to claim a reversion later.
The Judge in the UK action, not without some hesitation, agreed with the Publisher, and so no reversion of those songs to the Band will take place.
How damaging is this to Duran Duran? Do we need to Save a Prayer for them? Well, the Band will of course, continue to receive royalties from their Publisher for exploitation of all the songs in which they claimed a reversion. The Band are also enjoying something of a renaissance in the US, currently playing to 15,000-20,000 seat arenas. As one inside put it – ‘They are really good now – after 30 years they have finally learned to play their instruments’. This activity creates good revenues from ticket sales, as well as increasing the level of their Publishing royalties from live performance of their songs. So, the Band will not be going Hungry like a Wolf just because of this decision.
On the other hand, the question arises whether it is fair for Publishers to be able to defeat legislation protecting Writers in this way. Do they really need life of copyright deals to do what they do – especially in relation to a Band like Duran Duran, where any initial investment made by the original Publisher was earned back years ago. Unlike record companies which – misguidedly or otherwise – spend significant amounts on recording costs and marketing, Publishing is largely an administrative task involving the careful collection and processing of income generated by thousands of uses of songs around the world. Complicated, worthwhile activity for which a financial reward is due. But is life of copyright ownership till 70 years after the death of the writer really required in return for their work?
Following the judgement, Band-member Nick Rhodes told reporters: “US copyright law clearly states that songwriters are permitted to apply for a reversion of their copyrights after a 35 year period. This provision was instigated to help rebalance the often unfair deals which artists sign early in their careers when they have little choice to try to get their first break, with no negotiating power and virtually no understanding of what their copyrights really mean for the future”.
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