Ellington v. EMI Music, No. 651558/10, NYLJ 1202598616249 (1st Dep't May 2, 2013)
The First Department affirmed dismissal of Duke Ellington heirs' breach of contract action against a group of music publishers. The dispute was based on a 1961 songwriter agreement, and called for an interpretation of paragraph 3(a) of the agreement which, where relevant, required payment to Ellington of "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. 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.
Fees that previously had been charged by independent foreign subpublishers under the instant net receipts agreement were now being charged by subpublishers owned by Defendant. Plaintiff asserted that Defendant had 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. In dismissing the complaint, the motion court declined to read into the royalty payment terms any distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated foreign subpublishers inasmuch as the contracting parties themselves chose not to make such a distinction. The First Department affirmed.
The Court found no ambiguity in the agreement which, by its terms, required EMI to pay Ellington's heirs 50 percent of the net revenue actually received from foreign publication of Ellington's compositions. "'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."