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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Plain Meaning Leads to Mood Indigo for Ellington Heir

220px-Duke_Ellington_-_publicityDuke Ellington’s grandson brought a breach of contract action against a group of music publishers; he sought to recover royalties allegedly due under a 1961 contract. Under that contract, Ellington and his heirs are described as the “First Party” and several music publishers, including EMI Mills, are referred to as the “Second Party.” On appeal from the dismissal of the case, Ellington’s grandson pointed to paragraph 3(a) of the contract which required the Second Party to pay Ellington "a sum equal to fifty (50 percent) percent of the net revenue actually received by the Second Party from…foreign publication" of Ellington's compositions. Ellington’s grandson argued that the music publishers had since acquired ownership of the foreign subpublishers, thereby skimming net revenue actually received in the form of fees and, in turn, payment due to Ellington’s heirs.

The appellate court explained the contract and the grandson’s argument:

This is known in the music publishing industry as a "net receipts" arrangement by which a composer, such as Ellington, would collect royalties based on income received by a publisher after the deduction of fees charged by foreign subpublishers. As stated in plaintiff's brief, "net receipts" arrangements were standard when the agreement was executed in 1961. Plaintiff also notes that at that time foreign subpublishers were typically unaffiliated with domestic publishers such as Mills Music. Over time, however, EMI Mills, like other publishers, acquired ownership of the foreign subpublishers through which revenues derived from foreign subpublications were generated. Accordingly, in this case, fees that previously had been charged by independent foreign subpublishers under the instant net receipts agreement are now being charged by subpublishers owned by EMI Mills. Plaintiff asserts that EMI Mills has enabled itself to skim his claimed share of royalties from the Duke Ellington compositions by paying commissions to its affiliated foreign subpublishers before remitting the bargained-for royalty payments to Duke Ellington's heirs.

Ellington’s grandson asserted on appeal that the agreement is ambiguous as to whether "net revenue actually received by the Second Party" entails revenue received from EMI Mills's foreign subpublisher affiliates. The appellate court found no ambiguity in the agreement; the court stated that the agreement “by its terms, requires EMI Mills to pay Ellington’s heirs 50 percent of the net revenue actually received from foreign publication of Ellington’s compositions.” It reasoned:

"Foreign publication" has one unmistakable meaning regardless of whether it is performed by independent or affiliated subpublishers. Given the plain meaning of the agreement's language, plaintiff's argument that foreign subpublishers were generally unaffiliated in 1961, when the agreement was executed, is immaterial.

The court continued by stating that “the complaint sets forth no basis for plaintiff's apparent premise that subpublishers owned by EMI Mills should render their services for free although independent subpublishers were presumably compensated for rendering identical services.” Thus, dismissal of the suit was affirmed.

Ellington v. EMI Music, 651558/10, NYLJ 1202598616249, at *1 (App. Div., 1st, Decided May 2, 2013). 

[Meredith R. Miller]

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/contractsprof_blog/2013/05/plain-meaning-leads-to-mood-indigo-for-ellington-heir.html

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