23 July 2021


In this issue of ZOOM-IN brief, the Sex Pistols’ copyright claim continues; academic wins libel action against an anonymous blogger; whilst Ofcom reports record numbers of complaints.

Editorial credit: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com
Editorial credit: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com
Johnny Rotten

Copyright – John Lydon says licensing agreement like “slave labour”

John Lydon has criticised a ‘band member agreement’ during a claim over whether the Sex Pistols’ music can be used in a Danny Boyle TV drama.

Giving evidence in the High Court, Lydon – stage name Johnny Rotten – said the agreement made in 1998 was “like a total trap or prison”, likening it to “slave labour”.

Lydon is the defendant to a claim by guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook who are suing him to let their songs be used in Boyle’s show “Pistol”, which began filming in March.

The series is a six-part production based on a 2016 memoir by Jones called “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol”.

Jones and Cook want Boyle’s series to be allowed to use the Sex Pistols’ music, with the other former band member Glen Matlock, and a representative of the estate of the late Simon Beverley – stage name Sid Vicious – having already agreed that the licences should be granted.

Jones and Cook argue that in 1998 the band members entered into an agreement providing for “majority rule in relation to decisions” about licences, whereas Lydon maintains that unanimity is required, so he can veto any decision made by the other band members.

Cook told the court this week that he and the other members of the band had “always wanted to work harmoniously”, but felt they had to take Lydon to court so the group’s songs could be used in the TV show.

In his witness statement, Cook said Lydon “can be a difficult character and always likes to feel that he has control”.

Lydon previously told the Sunday Times that the script for the TV series had been written and an actor selected to play him without his consent and that he had been put “in a corner like a rat”.

Lydon claimed Boyle had made no attempt to contact him about the project – something the Oscar-winning director denies.

Giving his evidence this week, Lydon said: “I care very much about this band and its reputation and its quality control and I will always have a say if I think anything is being done to harm or damage [it].

“I don’t want anything I’m involved in to victimise any one of us. It would destroy the whole point and purpose of the band and so I don’t understand the BMA… I don’t remember signing it.”

Lydon also told the court: “You can’t let your history be rewritten for us by a complete stranger with no interest in it. This is my life here. This is my history. I didn’t write these songs [for them] to be given off to nonsense.”

Lydon’s evidence and the background suggests that the dispute over the rights to the band’s music has become a proxy for a wider disagreement about how the band and Lydon in particular are to be portrayed in Boyle’s series.

While there is little scope to exercise “image rights” in English law where a real-life story is dramatized for the screen, this litigation shows how IP rights can be a difficult issue where there are multiple rights holders.

Defamation - academic awarded £70,000 for anonymous “me too” campaign

A senior academic in the field of politics and ethics has obtained an award of £70,000 in damages against an anonymous blogger, and an order against Google for the blog’s removal.

The claimant, Paul Blackledge, was the victim of a campaign of online abuse in the form of blog posts making false and seriously defamatory allegations of sexual misconduct.

The posts were made on BlogSpot (a free to use blogging platform hosted by Google) by an unidentified defendant.

In a case which the Judge described as “a striking example of how the internet and social media can be used to abuse and damage innocent individuals with apparent impunity”, Mr Blackledge faced allegations of responsibility for sexual misconduct of the most grave kind against a number of women (described by the author as “survivors”).

The Judge said that “the nameless blogger has cynically used the #MeToo debate as part of their strategy” in order to allege that Mr Blackledge was a sexual predator who was guilty of a series of serious sexual assaults, including rape, sustained bullying and intimidation.

The material was widely disseminated, via BlogSpot, email, and Twitter.

Links to the material were sent to the University and College Union, of which Mr Blackledge had been a member, and to the organising committee of an academic conference at which he was due to appear.

In a claim for defamation and harassment over the campaign, Mr Blackledge gave the Court evidence as to his distress, despair and shock at the allegations.

This was magnified by professional colleagues, acquaintances and friends becoming aware and concerned about them, leading him to say in evidence that “the actions of the defendants have all but destroyed my career and my livelihood”.

Mr Blackledge gave evidence that he had been socially and professionally ostracised, with resulting effects on his own well-being and that of his family.

Notably, in one instance, an associate editor of a journal in which he had recently been published tweeted an apology for publishing the piece as she “was just made aware of Paul Blackledge’s history of sexual assault” (and which was retweeted three times and liked 40 times) with comments linking to the Website.

The Judge observed that “the link to #metoo means institutions and individuals are pressured to immediately cutting ties or be branded “enablers”.”

In addition to £70,000 in damages (which it is unlikely Blackledge will ever recover given the lengths the anonymous defendant went to cover their tracks), the Judge granted an injunction and an order requiring Google to remove the website, saying that this was likely to be the only remedy which would meaningfully protect Mr Blackledge’s rights.

The decision demonstrates that wholly anonymous and undefended allegations are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny in court and serves as a warning to those who are too quick to republish or give credence to them without careful thought.

Ofcom – Regulator receives “unprecedented” number of complaints

Media regulator Ofcom has received the highest number of complaints over the past year since it was established in 2002.

The “vast majority” of the record-breaking number of complaints were about “content that audiences found offensive”, the regulator’s annual report said.

The UK broadcasting watchdog received 142,660 complaints in 2020/21, a huge increase on the previous year’s total of 34,545.

Comments by Piers Morgan on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, during an episode of “Good Morning Britain”, in March became the most complained about TV moment in Ofcom’s history earlier this year.

Morgan subsequently decided to quit his role as presenter rather than withdraw his criticisms.

The controversial presenter was responsible for a further three of the top ten most-complained-about broadcasts in the last year, after two interviews with social care minister Helen Whately and a third with Home Office minister Victoria Atkin also attracted thousands of complaints.

There were 25,017 complaints about a Black Lives Matter dance routine by Diversity during Britain’s Got Talent in September, and a further 2,565 complaints were received after Alesha Dixon wore a BLM necklace while judging the ITV talent show.

I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! attracted 11,516 complaints over the welfare of animals used in trials on the show.

An Ofcom spokesman said: “We’re a nation of TV lovers, and it’s kept us entertained and informed like never before during lockdown.

“But, from time to time, viewers see things that trouble them, and that’s where we come in.

“We assess every complaint we receive, and while we don’t step in lightly given the importance of free speech we take strong action where we find serious harm to audiences.”

Previous research by Ofcom found “societal norms have shifted in recent years and discriminatory behaviours and language are now more commonly perceived as unacceptable than was previously the case”.

As well as the increase in media consumption during the lockdowns over the past eighteen months, the issues complained about also seem to reflect the tendency to polarise hot-button political and cultural issues which has characterised public life in recent years.

An independent media regulator such as Ofcom will inevitably become a forum for disputes relating to controversial topics and this phenomenon seems unlikely to diminish.

New guidance for journalists –“Combatting Online Harassment and Abuse: A Legal Guide for Journalists in England and Wales”

New guidance has been published containing information for journalists about the options available for tackling harassment and abuse they may face online.

The guide was commissioned by the MLA and DCMS as part of the work of the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists which is taking steps to ensure that journalists in the UK are able to operate free from threats and violence.

See link here: Combatting Online Harassment and Abuse: A Legal Guide for Journalists in England and Wales


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