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Duke Ellington family calls for royalties lawsuit against EMI to be reinstated

By | Published on Friday 12 September 2014

Duke Ellington

The estate of Duke Ellington is hoping to resurrect a royalties lawsuit against EMI Music Publishing, now controlled by Sony/ATV of course, after judges in lower courts sided with the music company in the legal dispute.

The lawsuit being led by Ellington’s grandson first emerged in 2010, and centres on a common bone of contention in artist and songwriter circles, what happens to royalties as they move between a big music firm’s global subsidiaries and the division to which the creator is directly signed. It’s common practice for each subsidiary to take a commission, with the artist getting their percentage cut only of the monies that reach their home division.

Ellington’s lawyers argue that this is a con. EMI treats its businesses in other countries as if they were third-party sub-publishers, whereas they are, in fact, different offices of the same company. And more importantly, Team Ellington alleged that this directly breached the jazz great’s 1961 contract with Mills Music, which was subsequently acquired by the EMI publishing firm.

But the judges who initially heard the case concluded that while the 1961 contract did specifically ban the publisher from allowing its subsidiaries to take additional cuts of any royalties, that only applied to subsidiaries of Mills Music that existed when the contract was signed, and not the plethora of global spin-off businesses added since.

Appeal court judges questioned lawyers for both sides this week about reinstating the legal claim, and should rule on the matter next month.