In a pivotal scene in the new Todd Phillips psychological film Joker, Joacquin Phoenix, playing the Joker, is seen dancing down a concrete staircase to tune of Rock and Roll Part II. The song was famously co-written by convicted paedophile Gary Glitter.
The choice of this particular song in association with the rebirth of Arthur into the Joker has sparked anger among the wider public. Glitter (aka Paul Gadd) is a disgraced English glam rock singer and convicted paedophile who was particularly successful in the 1970s and 1980s. He is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence for sexual assault on minors and attempted rape after his conviction in 2015.
In an attempt to explain the particular musical choice made for this scene, some viewers have expressed their indignation that Glitter’s abuse could be seen as a “foundational aspect of the Joker’s creation” while others see in this a reminder that viewers should not be taking pleasure in watching a movie which could be interpreted as glorifying violence.
Beyond the moral and ethical concerns surrounding the choice of more than a minute of this song to accompany this particular scene, many viewers were particularly outraged by the fact that Glitter could potentially make money in the form of royalties for this use of his song. But the LA Times recently revealed that Glitter does not own the master recordings anymore so would not receive royalties.
Copyright is a bundle of exclusive rights automatically granted at the point of creation provided that certain requirements are satisfied, such as that the work must exist in a material form (for example, a recording or a music sheet). When it comes to a song, there is a layering of rights as several works are involved. For example, there is the music composition, the lyrics and the recording of the track, which can all attract separate copyrights.
Generally, writers and publishers own or administer the copyright in the song while a producer (who could be the artist, manager, producer or recording studio) owns or administers the copyright in the sound recording. For lyrics and music composition, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. Yet, for sound recordings, copyright lasts for 70 years from the date on which the recording was released.
So it is not uncommon to have different owners of the creative works embodied in a song from the owners of the recording itself. In the case of Rock and Roll Part II, the master recording is said to be owned by Snapper Music, a London-based record label which reportedly bought the rights in 1997 from Glitter.
By assigning his rights, Glitter has transferred outright his ownership of rights to Snapper Music. So this is different from a licence where a permission is given to do certain things for a certain time without transferring the copyright to the licensee. Although from a perspective of an artist, it is generally recommended to prefer licence deals over an assignment of rights, record companies will often prefer an assignment of rights as these become valuable assets.
While Snapper Music looks after the rights in the recording, Universal Music Publishing Group and BMG are said to manage the publishing rights in the song in the US. Here again, a spokesperson for Universal stated that they (as well as others) owned the rights and were not paying Glitter any royalties.
To use this particular song in Joker, Warner Bros secured a synchronisation licence to be authorised to use the music in relation to moving images. These licences are much broader than just movies and include TV broadcasts, video games and commercials. Where record sales have been in decline, the income generated by synchronisation licences has gained importance over the years.
Both copyright owners in the song and the owners of the sound recording negotiate a fee for a specific use. The calculation of these licence fees depends on various factors – such as the duration of the use, the position of the music (music used in a trailer or for the opening of a film will generally earn more than at the end when most of the audience will be leaving the cinema) or the setting (for example, is it a blockbuster, independent film or a small local production?).
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They are often the result of complex calculations and vary greatly from one case to another. In the case of the Glitter song, as the rights are owned by various entities, it is hard – given the way in which licence fees are calculated – to really get to the bottom of this controversy without having a look at the actual contracts between the parties involved.
Furthermore, who owns the performing rights here? This is a separate right enabling its owner to decide how they wish their piece to be performed publicly, including in the case of a movie. It is not clear from news reports who holds these rights. Nevertheless, Warner Bros is said to be looking into replacing the song from this scene for streaming and DVD releases.