As most fules kno, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a TV comedy series in the 1960s and 1970s that spawned several films and, in 2005, a stage musical called Spamalot. So ingrained is Python in the public consciousness that (according to Wikipedia) questions about it feature in the examination for would-be British citizens.
There were originally six members of the Python team, some of whom went on to become household names for their later work. John Cleese co-wrote and starred in one of the most successful TV comedies of all time, Fawlty Towers. After many years of travel programmes, Michael Palin is now a national treasure. Eric Idle seemed to disappear from public view (other than in the Python films) until resurfacing in 2005 as the writer and driving force behind Spamalot.
It is strange, to say the least, to encounter the Python team as witnesses in a High Court trial. The case, Forstater v Python (Monty) Pictures Limited  EWHC 1873 (Ch), concerns the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the Grail), and a dispute over entitlement to royalties from Spamalot, which was inspired by the film. The case is interesting because of the people involved and the facts.
The claimant in the case, Mark Forstater, was hired by the Pythons to be the producer of the Grail. He was entitled, under a written agreement with the first defendant dated 25 April 1974, to a percentage of certain profits from the film, including, in the words of the third schedule to this agreement, ‘any and all so-called "merchandising" and other "spin-off" rights arising therefrom.’ The dispute concerned (among other issues) whether Mr Forstater was entitled to a percentage of the royalties accruing from Spamalot, and what that percentage should be.
Mr Forstater was rather unwise in the way he presented his claim. The judge reported that Mr Forstater had dug a deep pit for himself by claiming to be the seventh Python, which infuriated the surviving Pythons. He then tried to backtrack and clarify that he only meant for financial purposes and was not claiming a creative role.
The case report describes a long and complex factual history. The judge, Norris J, was prepared to rectify (ie rewrite) a term of the agreement based on the evidence before him. It is quite unusual for judges to rectify the terms set out in a signed, written agreement, but then the way in which the parties in this case went about taking decisions was also highly unusual.
The Pythons were not the only prominent people to feature in the case. Simon Olswang is a solicitor who founded the London firm that bears his name; Olswang is now a leading media law firm with offices in seven countries. According to his blog, Olswang is now 'enjoying an active retirement from a mango fruit farm overlooking the Sea of Galilee'. According to the judge, he gave evidence ‘in a rather casual way’ by mobile phone and video link from Israel. It seems he was responsible for drafting the agreement and failed to incorporate an agreed provision; hence the need for rectification. But as the drafting work was done 40 years ago, there is unlikely to be any recourse against him or his firm at that time (Brecher & Co); the limitation period for claims has long since expired.
Several of the Pythons gave evidence to the court. As is usual in court judgments nowadays, the judge stated whether he found each witness’s evidence trustworthy and reliable. So, for the record:
Michael Palin: ‘a balanced and trustworthy witness’.
Terry Jones: ‘a trustworthy witness, though …his evidence was suffused with a sense that Mr Forstater had done very well out of his brief connection with the Pythons’.
Eric Idle: ‘he expressed the hope that in his evidence he was being honest and that his dislike [of Mr Forstater] did not affect his honesty. I think he largely achieved that aim so far as conscious effort could take him. He undoubtedly regarded Mr Forstater as ungrateful.’
Terry Gilliam and John Cleese: ‘gave written evidence but did not attend for cross-examination. I do not place much weight on their evidence on that account.’
The case report reveals the Pythons’ concern with retaining copyright in their creative work, which might suggest a good business approach. However, other aspects of the way they worked seemed highly dysfunctional. Michael Palin’s evidence hints at frequent arguments among the Pythons. They apparently had a ‘chaotic’ approach to management and decision-making, relying on a succession of individuals of varying qualifications and experience to handle the business side of their activities, including important but mundane activities such as negotiating contracts and giving instructions to solicitors.
There seem to have been many fallings-out with these individuals over the years, including someone who might have been a key witness in the case, Anne Henshaw.
The case led me to reflected on the best way to manage the business and legal affairs of creative artists. Even highly intelligent people such as the Pythons – most of them were from an Oxbridge background, and John Cleese obtained a 2:1 in law from Cambridge – seem to be unable, or unwilling, to engage with the business side.
It is not surprising that some artists are ripped off by their managers or have dark, strange relationships with them, as in the case of Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker.
My experience of advising ‘creatives’ is more limited than it is of advising scientists and academics. Advising artistic people can be very rewarding, but sometimes it requires the adviser to have a very thick skin. Perhaps that is not so different from dealing with any driven, highly-talented individuals.
Last December a client who is a novelist told me he knew ‘sod all’ about the matter on which he was advising (she apologised later), while some years ago a client who is a leading academic surgeon and knight of the realm told him that he was ‘killing patients’ with each day of delay in reaching agreement on the terms of a licence agreement (he didn’t apologise). Maybe there isn’t any real difference between the artistic and scientific worlds!
Mark Anderson is the solicitor-founder of Anderson & Company in Oxfordshire, He is member of the Law Society’s Intellectual Property Working Party. This is an edited version of an article first published on the IP Draughts blog.