Duran Duran, l’interprétation des clauses de cession et l’ordre public

L’arrêt de la High Court du 2 décembre 2016 dans l’affaire Gloucester Place Music Ltd v Le Bon & Ors ([2016] EWHC 3091 (Ch)) illustre les difficultés pour les artistes dans le domaine musical à échapper à des contrats comprenant des clauses de cession de droits rédigées dans des termes très larges. Elle confirme également les conséquences d’un choix de la loi anglaise au regard des règles d’ordre public contractuel (en l’espèce le termination right US) prévu par d’autres juridictions.

En l’espèce, les cinq membres du groupe Duran Duran (ce qui ne nous rajeunit pas) avaient signé en 1980 des contrats d’édition musicale stipulant une clause de cession de droits mondiale, portant sur les œuvres écrites par les auteurs pendant la durée du contrat. La clause était rédigée comme suit :

« The Writer as beneficial owner (and by way of assignment of future copyright and rights where appropriate) hereby assigns to the Publishers all the copyrights and all other rights whatsoever and howsoever now or hereafter known (subject as hereinafter provided) in all musical compositions and/or lyrics and/or original arrangements of musical works (whether or not such musical works so arranged are in the public domain) which may prior to the date hereof have been written composed or created in whole or in part by the Writer and not been assigned by the Writer to any third party and which may during the term hereof be written composed or created in whole or in part by the Writer including the titles words and music thereof (all of such musical compositions lyrics and arrangements being hereinafter together called ‘the said works’) throughout the world and the right to renew and extend such copyrights and other rights and the ownership of such renewed and extended copyrights and other rights as may now or hereafter be conferred by the laws of any territory so that the entire copyrights and all other rights in the said works shall be vested in the Publishers absolutely free from the adverse claims of any third party… »

Ces contrats étaient soumis au droit anglais, par l’application d’une clause rédigée comme suit : « This Agreement shall be governed by and construed under the laws of England whose courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction … ». En 2014 les auteurs avaient fait procéder à la signification d’une notice de résiliation en application des dispositions de la section 203 du Copyright Act US (termination right), et prétendaient que la loi américaine, d’ordre public sur ce point, devait être ici appliquée. La High Court rejette cet argument :

« The general rule, however, is that English courts will enforce a contract which is valid and enforceable under English law even if the contract would be unenforceable as contrary to public policy in another country with which the contract has a connection: see In re Missouri Steamship Co (1889) 42 Ch D 321 at 335-337 (Lord Halsbury LC) and Vita Foods Products v Unus Shipping Co Ltd [1939] AC 277 at 296-298 (Lord Wright). It is true that English courts will not enforce a contract the performance of which would be unlawful in its place of performance (see e.g. Ispahani v Bank Melli Iran [1998] Lloyd’s Rep Bank 133 at 136-137 (Robert Walker LJ)), but counsel for the Defendants did not invoke that principle here. »

Elle applique donc au contrat la loi anglaise, et rappelle le principe d’interprétation objective appliqué par les tribunaux anglais :

« There is no dispute as to the general principles applicable to the interpretation of written agreements, which have been considered by the House of Lords and the Supreme Court in a series of recent cases, including Investors Compensation Scheme Ltd v West Bromwich Building Society [1998] 1 WLR 896, Chartbrook Ltd v Persimmon Homes Ltd [2009] UKHL 38, [2009] 1 AC 1101, Re Sigma Finance Corp [2009] UKSC 2, [2010] 1 All ER 571, Rainy Sky SA v Kookmin Bank [2011] UKSC 50 [2011] 1 WLR 2900, Aberdeen City Council v Stewart Milne Group Ltd [2011] UKSC 56, [2012] SLT 205 and Arnold v Britton [2015] UKSC 36, [2015] AC 1619. In brief summary, the interpretation of a contract is an objective exercise in which the court’s task is to ascertain the meaning that the document would convey to a reasonable person having all the background knowledge which would reasonably have been available to the parties in the situation in which they were at the time of the contract. »

Jugé en l’espèce que le langage clair et large de la clause de cession ne peut qu’être compris par une personne raisonnable ayant la connaissance nécessaire dans ce domaine comme entraînant le transfert le plus complet du copyright, ce qui implicitement interdit aux membres du groupe d’invoquer leur droit à résiliation (termination right) prévu par la loi US :

« The language of clause 3(a) is wide and general. Particularly when read together with clause 4, I consider that what the language would have conveyed to a reasonable person having the relevant background knowledge was that the parties’ intention was that the « entire copyrights » in the Compositions should vest, and remain vested, in the Claimant for the « full term » of the copyrights. That implicitly precludes the Group Members from exercising rights under US law which have the result that the Claimant’s ownership of the copyrights is brought to an end prior to their expiry. Moreover, this interpretation is reinforced by clause 6(b), by which the Group Members promised not to transfer any interest in the copyrights to any other person, which I read in context as meaning any person other than the Claimant. »

A noter que la décision contient également des développements intéressants sur la doctrine de non derogation from a grant.

Source: IPKAT.

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