KLF publisher objects to tribute documentary on copyright grounds

Warner Chappell, music publisher of art pop pranksters the KLF, has attempted to block the screening of a documentary about the group which was shown at a film festival in Texas.

The documentary, by director Chris Atkins, who was behind the film Starsuckers, covers the work of KLF members Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

They went to number one in 1988 as the Timelords with the Dr Who theme-sampling “Doctorin’ the Tardis” and then went to on to release a series of sample-heavy international hit singles as the KLF on their own KLF Communications Label, including “What Time is Love” and “3am Eternal”.

The KLF were the biggest selling singles act in the world in 1991, but by 1992 had retired from the music industry and deleted their back catalogue, which only began to appear on streaming services for the first time (with many samples removed) in early 2021.

In 1994, as the K Foundation, Drummond and Cauty burned one million pounds in cash on the Scottish Island of Jura, which were the remaining royalties from their music career.

The KLF’s short lived but influential career in the music industry offers a rich seam of material for a documentary, but the duo seem to be very much against it.

In an interview in 2016, Cauty said, “We don’t want to do it – it’s like an archaeological dig through the past. We’re doing other things that we think are much more interesting”

This opposition could explain why lawyers acting on behalf of Drummond and the KLF attempted to block the release of the unauthorised documentary on copyright grounds, saying that they would take all measures to protect the group’s intellectual property, including legal proceedings.

Atkins is relying on the fair dealing exemption from copyright protection which allows material to be used for the purposes of criticism or review.

The Guardian reported Atkins telling them that, unusually, this applies to his film because he is using archive audio recordings of Drummond and Cauty critiquing their own work.

The KLF’s publishers, Warner Chappell, have explained their opposition:

“We always champion the value of our songwriters’ music,” they said.

“Feature-length documentaries made for profit which make extensive use of an artist’s music are not covered by the fair dealing exception to copyright law, which is why we took action in this case.”

This stance seems richly ironic, where the band’s name has sometimes been said to stand for “Kopyright Liberation Front” and their pop career was based on the most liberal use of other artists’ material.

Unauthorised use of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in a 1987 song “The Queen and I”, which Cauty later claimed was “artistically justified”, led to a legal dispute with ABBA and the forcible withdrawal from sale of the album containing the song.

After failing to meet up with ABBA on a trip to Sweden, Drummond and Cauty disposed of the remaining copies of the album by burning most of them in a field and throwing the rest into the North Sea on the ferry ride home.

In an echo of Cauty’s own comments on his use of ABBA’s work, Atkins points to the artistic value of his film, saying: “It’s the definitive telling of the greatest music and art story of the 20th century that’s never really been told, because the two protagonists won’t talk about it.”

Given the affectionate nature of the film and the wider background, litigation seems unlikely, but any dispute would be an interesting test of the limits of the fair dealing exemptions which many film-makers rely on.