Legal viewpoint - Who Are The Sugababes
Thursday March 11, 2010
By Christopher Barrett
Following Mutya Buena’s attempt to own the Sugababes name, IP lawyer Danielle Amor of Lovells LLP discusses the consequences that it may have for the current members of the band still known by the same name. Here Amor also examines wider issues arising from the break up of bands including rights of ownership in songs.
The Sugababes. Everyone has heard of them, but who exactly are they? Do you think of the original three, Siobhan, Keisha and Mutya? Or the current three, Heidi, Amelle and Jade?
The last of the founding three members, Keisha Buchanan, left the band in September 2009 leaving Heidi Range as the longest standing member having been in the band since 2001. The original members are now trying to assert their rights in the name and have made a joint application for a Community trade mark registration for Sugababes. If granted, the trade mark registration would give Siobhan, Keisha and Mutya the exclusive right to use and prevent anyone else from using the Sugababes name anywhere in the EU for specified goods and services including musical sound recordings, books, personal appearances by musical groups and paper gift wrap!
To further complicate matters, Keisha has launched a High Court action against former fellow bandmates Heidi and Amelle. It is not yet clear what this relates to, but it may have an impact on the imminent release of the Sugababes' new album.
Where does this leave the current line-up? The girls and/or their label could oppose the application on the grounds of their prior rights in the name. Heidi has been in the group for nine years, whereas Siobhan was a member for just three years and Mutya left the group in 2005.
In the UK, musical groups are usually regarded as "partnerships" which are dissolved when a member leaves. The changing membership of the Sugababes will have created a number of different partnerships. Assets of the group, such as the name, are owned by the partnership rather than the individual members. Upon dissolution of a partnership, the band members are entitled to a share of the value of the assets.
Siobhan and Mutya probably abandoned any interest they had in the Sugababes name and goodwill when they left, as they have made no attempts to assert their rights since then. The position is less clear in relation to Keisha who only recently split from the band, although she too would not have direct rights in the name. If the EU Trade Marks Registry were to adopt the same approach as the UK courts, the trade mark application should be refused if an opposition was brought by Heidi, Amelle or the record label, possibly even on the grounds that the application was made in bad faith.
However, the High Court action is less clear cut and potentially more of an issue for the band. If Keisha is asserting her partnership rights and requesting the value of the assets be divided, the band may have to choose between fighting a costly (and potentially lengthy) legal battle, rebranding completely (with the associated possible negative impacts on their fanbase and goodwill) or paying Keisha a lump sum to continue using the name.
And it's not only names that bands fight over - Busted, Spandau Ballet and Procul Harum are just a few bands who have had legal disputes relating to the rights in their songs. Such disputes are usually resolved with reference to partnership and copyright laws, although much like a pre-nup, it makes sense for bands to consider legal issues from day one even if it feels a bit awkward at the time. For example, new bands should take the following steps:
• Put in place a written agreement dealing with ownership of the band name, goodwill, rights in songs and royalty payments as well as what will happen when the band split.
• Apply for registered trade marks in relevant jurisdictions asap.
• Conclude new agreements when any members leave/join the group.
• Be aware that record labels are likely to request an assignment of rights when signing new acts.
Danielle Amor is an associate in the intellectual property, media and technology practice of the law firm Lovells LLP.