Contract Means What It Says, Rules Court of Appeal

A decision of the Court of Appeal has confirmed that legal agreements mean what they say, so when a pair of composers entered into an agreement to assign to the Performing Right Society (PRS) all the rights which belonged to them ‘on the date of this agreement or which you may acquire or own whilst you are a member’, they could not subsequently agree to write a piece of music for a client and give the client the copyright to it.

The composers had been retained to write music for a film and their agreement with the film makers assigned to the film producers the ‘entire copyright’ in the music. When a song from the film was subsequently broadcast, the PRS brought a legal action for infringement of its copyright.

The legal argument hinged on whether the composers had ever owned the copyright themselves, because as soon as the music was written, the copyright belonged to the film producers.

There is a principle in intellectual property law that if rights are assigned more than once, the ‘true’ owner of the right is the first person to whom the right has been assigned. The dispute therefore turned on whether the agreement the composers had with the PRS did, in fact, create an assignment over their future work.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the agreement with the PRS covered rights which were capable of being owned by the composers: there was no need that they actually owned the compositions when they were completed. Accordingly, the rights belonged to the PRS.

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