How does a judgment in a Bob Marley songs copyright case affect the interpretation of contracts?
Earlier this month, in the High Court, a decision was handed down about whether copyright in various Bob Marley songs, including No Woman, No Cry, transferred under a 1992 agreement.
See BSI Enterprises Limited v Blue Mountain Music Limited  EWHC 1690 (Ch), issued on 4 June 2014. The case involves the interpretation of a definition in an IP agreement, but there is nothing very remarkable about the judge’s decision. The case is mainly interesting for its facts.
Those facts are messy and complex and involve:
1. Bob Marley writing songs but claiming that others wrote them, apparently to get around contractual obligations to a publisher. This is referred to in the case as the Misattribution Ploy.
2. Chris Blackwell of Island Records giving evidence in a 2006 court case that certain songs were excluded from a 1992 agreement under which the Marley oeuvre was sold to Island Records. By implication, if Mr Blackwell was correct, copyright in those songs remained with the seller. In the present case, Mr Blackwell again gave evidence, and said that he was mistaken on this point in his earlier evidence.
3. As a result of that statement in 2006, the first claimant entered into an agreement to acquire the copyright in these and some other Bob Marley songs from the seller, and then licensed them to the second claimant.
4. In the present case, the claimants sought a declaration that they were the owner and licensee respectively, of the copyright in the songs in question.
The outcome of this case depended on interpreting the definition of Composition and Catalogue in the 1992 agreement. More on that below. But first, Chris Blackwell’s evidence in the earlier case, that certain songs were excluded from the 1992 agreement. He now considered that he had been mistaken on this point, and explained that he had been tired after giving evidence for a couple of days.
The judge in the present case accepted that explanation and in any event thought Mr Blackwell’s opinion on the interpretation of the 1992 agreement was not relevant. This was a matter for the judge to decide.
The definition of Composition and Catalogue read as follows. I have highlighted some of the key passages in bold text:
1.8 ‘Composition’ and ‘Catalogue.’ The term ‘Catalogue’ shall mean all presently-existing musical compositions, or portions thereof, including cues, domestic or foreign, whether originally claimed or registered as a musical composition or as a part of a dramatic-musical work, consisting of lyrics and/or music whether or not registered in the United States Copyright Office or elsewhere, whether published or unpublished, written recorded by Robert N Marley, Winston Peter McIntosh and/or Neville Livingstone, and/or certain musical compositions written or composed by Alfonso Pyfrom and/or Jimmy Norman (which were recorded by any of Robert N Marley, Winston Peter McIntosh and/or Neville Livingstone), under their own names or under any pseudonyms, individually or as part of any collaboration between or among any of them or others (individually a ‘Composition’ and collectively the ‘Compositions’) and all right, title and interest in and to such Compositions, including all copyrights and renewals and extensions of copyrights thereto in all jurisdictions throughout the Universe, to the extent such compositions, copyrights, renewals and extensions are owned, controlled or administered, in whole or in part, by any member of Seller or by Seller’s Music Publishing Business as of the Closing Date, or from which any member of Seller or Seller’s Music Publishing Business receives income, including, but not by way of limitation, the Catalogue listed on Schedule 2 attached hereto. In furtherance of the foregoing, and not by way of limitation, the Compositions also include all musical compositions owned by Seller which were recorded by Robert N Marley (whether alone or in combination with any other artists).
The claimants argued that, because the songs in question had not been listed in Schedule 2, and because this was (they said) a deliberate omission, they were not subject to the 1992 agreement. The claimants’ counsel tried to argue that it was clear that there had been a deliberate omission, and that this was part of the factual matrix that should be taken into account when interpreting the wording of the 1992 agreement.
The judge preferred to interpret the meaning from the wording of the 1992 agreement itself. The definition did not limit itself to the songs listed in Schedule 2. The above-quoted wording made clear ‘almost to the point of redundant repetition’ that all Bob Marley songs were included in the definition, whether or not they were listed in Schedule 2. I take issue with the judge’s use of the word ‘almost’.
The above wording goes well beyond the point of redundant repetition.
If any point of general legal interest arises from this case it is simply to reiterate the well-known point that the English courts are very reluctant to allow evidence of what the parties might or might not have intended to influence their interpretation of a contract. What matters is what a third party would understand the words used in the contract to mean.
Regrettably, the judge did not opine on whether a contract drafter who uses the term ‘including’ needs to add words such as ‘without limitation’ or, as in this case, the words ‘but not by way of limitation’ in order to avoid an argument that the list that follows the word ‘including’ could narrow the general sense of what goes before the word ‘including’.
It is very common for contract drafters to use additional words of this kind, though leading contract-drafting expert Ken Adams considers that such additions are unnecessary. As with many things that Ken says, I am coming round to this view, but I’m not quite there yet. I still sometimes includes an interpretation provision in my contracts, stating that ‘including’, when used in the contract, means ‘including without limitation’.
Mark Anderson is managing partner of Anderson Law LLP. This article first appeared on his IP Draughts blog