The Sex Pistols Resolve Royalties Dispute in Court

9th November 2021 Media Law

The Sex Pistols, quite possibly one of the most recognizable acts of the past fifty years, have been embroiled in an ongoing legal dispute that recently reached its conclusion. 


John Lydon - more commonly known by his stage name Johnny Rotten - refused to provide his consent for the Sex Pistols’ music to be used in an upcoming six-part series on the memoir of Steve Jones, which led to a fiery dispute.

The other members of the Sex Pistols (Paul Cook, Steve Jones and the estate of Sid Vicious) supported the use of the music in the upcoming FX series, which will be directed by Danny Boyle.

They were in support of signing a synchronisation agreement to allow the music to be used in the series, but Mr Lydon refused to do so as he believed the series was “disrespectful”.

Band Membership Agreement

Due to Mr Lydon’s refusal, the opposing members brought a case in the High Court to seek a declaration that the majority decision can bind Mr Lydon pursuant to a Band Membership Agreement entered in February 1998.

Within the agreement, the Sex Pistols had agreed that decisions on how Sex Pistol’s intellectual property rights should be assigned should be decided by a majority, and it was not necessary to obtain unanimous consent.

However, Mr Lydon argued that his former band members were prevented from asserting their claims under the doctrine of estoppel. He argued that the voting mechanism for a majority rule had never been relied on in the past and the members had always been allowed a veto on any particular act of exploitation.

Mr Lydon sought to rely on around 20 examples of past dealings that he argued demonstrated that a right to veto existed and that a unanimous vote was required. Examples included previous situations whereby My Lydon’s consent had been sought before final decisions for the assignment of intellectual property rights had been made.

High Court Decision

The High Court, however, ruled that the examples cited did not provide evidence that unanimous consent was required, rather, it simply demonstrated that there had been a desire to be commercial and to be as consensual as possible, which had influenced past decisions.

The judge, Sir Anthony Mann, confirmed that the desire of the parties to be consensual was not the same as the parties representing that the voting mechanism for majority decisions did not apply or was not intended to be relied upon.

This meant that the claim against Mr Lydon succeeded, and the other members of the band could invoke the majority voting rules against Mr Lydon to permit the music to be used in the upcoming series.

Other Notable Disputes

This is not the first time that something like this has happened within the music industry, in fact, it has happened on a number of occasions. 

In the 1980s, Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, submitted a claim against his fellow band members in an attempt to block them from using the name “Pink Floyd” following his departure from the band. This led to a huge public battle between the parties and the dispute was ultimately settled outside of court.

Advice for Musicians

These situations can come to fruition very quickly if band members do not take the correct steps to prevent the dispute from arising. Disagreements are an inevitable part of life, and so it is sensible to decide in advance how they can be resolved.

Band members should ensure that they have a written agreement in place and that they have thought carefully about the terms of the agreement. For example, how will profits be shared? How will the royalties be shared? If someone was to leave, what would happen to the naming rights of the group? Similarly, decisions regarding the process of agreeing/refusing the use of music by third parties - if relevant.

All of these situations show the importance of clear drafting and having the correct lawyers to support you. 

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Charlotte Bradbury is a Trainee Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Trainee Solicitors department

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