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(Sex) Pistols at dawn over Danny Boyle's new biopic series

19 July 2021. Published by Alessandro Cerri, Senior Associate and Sophie Parkinson, Trainee Solicitor

Sex Pistols band members accuse frontman John Lydon of being No Fun and creating Anarchy for refusing to authorise licences for the use of the band's music in Danny Boyle's forthcoming TV series, Pistol.

Rotten apple spoils the bunch

Steve Jones and Paul Cook (the former guitarist and drummer of the Sex Pistols, respectively) have accused John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) of living up to his moniker in refusing to authorise a licence of the band's music for Danny Boyle's new six-part FX series, Pistol

The series, revolving around Jones' memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol, has Disney's backing, but has been snubbed by Lydon, who claims that he is portrayed (in the book) in a "hostile and unflattering light", and that the series script had been written, and an actor chosen to play him, without his participation or consent. 

Jones and Cook have asked the High Court to permit the licensing of the music (mainly from the album Never Mind The B******s) arguing that, pursuant to a band agreement made in 1998, any licensing requests would be dealt with on a "majority rules basis", and that they have the support of the estate of the late Sid Vicious, as well as the original bassist Glen Matlock. Lydon contends that no licence can be granted without his consent. 

On Monday 23 August, Sir Anthony Mann ruled that the band agreement was both valid and active. Mann agreed that the "majority voting rules" could overrule Lydon's attempt to do things "My Way". 

Mann found it likely that Lydon had been fully advised about the band agreement and its consequences, as he had English and US lawyers as well as his manager on his side, who would have undoubtedly explained the effects of such agreement. 

Regardless of whether Lydon had read the agreement itself, Mann stated that it was "highly likely" that Lydon would have understood its effects, having been fully advised, and in light of the fact that Lydon's evidence revealing that the protection of the Sex Pistol's legacy was important to him.

In any event Lydon's rights had "No Future" as Mann observed that he had previously "signed away his power to control the use of music rights" to BMG and Warner Chappell Music, and only retained qualified rights of approval as a result. The record companies could, in effect, act as they saw fit, even if they had previously elected to seek Lydon's permission to use the music.

Whilst not a particularly surprising decision, the following take-away points arise, particularly for artists: 

  1. when licensing rights to your work, don't assume that you will still have the ability to restrict how it is used because you are the artist / author, unless this is expressly stated in the relevant contract; 
  2. in the case of joint authors (such as band members), it is worth bearing in mind when entering into agreements regarding jointly-owned rights (such as band agreements) that the state of affairs can change, and it may be worth including a clause allowing the parties to re-consider, every few years (for example), whether the arrangements are still suitable for them; 
  3. even if such agreements are put in place, disputes may still arise (as in this case) and it is worth thinking about (and drafting into the contract) how you would like them to be resolved; and 
  4. finally, if you instruct lawyers or other advisors to help you on a deal, do make sure you take note of their advice, as the Court will assume that you have!