In the case of Matthew Fisher v Gary Brooker and Onward Music Ltd [2006] EWHC 3239 (Ch), the High Court ruled that Mr. Matthew Fisher was entitled to the copyright royalties as co-author and a joint owner of the musical work known as 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', one of the most successful popular songs of the late 1960s.

Mr. Fisher was a member of the band Procol Harum of which Mr. Gary Brooker and Mr. Reid were also members. The song in question was released on 12 May 1967 and has, to date, sold over 6 million copies. Prior to the release of the recorded version, which featured Mr. Fisher on the organ, Mr. Fisher and Mr. Reid had assigned their copyright to the lyrics and the music of the song to Essex Music Ltd. The latter subsequently assigned these rights to Onward Music Ltd. Mr. Fisher's claim was that his contribution to the arrangement released in 1967 entitled him to the copyright of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' both as co author and a joint owner. This, he contended, was due to the fact that his contribution was significant and made this work distinct from the original version.

The Court had to address the following key issues;

  • Who could claim ownership of musical copyright in the organ solo?
  • To what extent could Mr. Fisher lay claim to the work?
  • Was the contribution by Mr. Fisher capable of vesting copyright ownership in him?
  • Whether the copyright interest could be extinguished by the existence of a copyright interest of other parties in an earlier version, by the terms of the recording contract with Onward Music Ltd and by defences based upon estoppel, acquiescence and laches?

The Court ruled that Mr. Fisher was both a joint owner and a co-author of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' as his contribution to the work was significant. It further noted that although the claimant had brought the claim after 38 years, this did not bar him from claiming the royalties that were due to him as a co-author; with Mr. Fisher being entitled to 40% of the royalties and the rest belonging to Mr. Brooker. The claimant could not, however, claim the royalties that had already been paid to the defendants by the two collecting societies in the United Kingdom prior to the institution of the case.

This case clearly sets out the boundaries on when one can claim co-authorship and joint ownership in arrangements of musical works. The contribution has to be significant in order to give the arrangement an original character. Moreover, the duration of copyright in all original literary, artistic, musical and dramatic works is for life and 70 years thereafter. Thus, it does appear that some oldies do lead to gold, and it can pay to pursue claims, albeit many years after the event.