A recent decision by the United Kingdom’s High Court could lead parts of the music industry to call into question the common practice of selling individual tracks on the internet where artists specifically intended that the tracks be heard together. Where artists designed the tracks to be played together to create an overall experience, unbundling the tracks may undermine their artistic integrity. The iconic rock band Pink Floyd, well-known for concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon, sought to protect the effect created by playing album tracks together by bringing an action against its record label, EMI, for selling individual tracks online. The Chancellor held that the label could not sell Pink Floyd’s tracks individually without their consent in order to “preserve the artistic integrity of the albums”.
While the dispute turned on a contractual clause, the decision may have copyright implications. Under the Australian Copyright Act, authors are granted “moral rights”, which include the right to have authorship attributed and the right not to have the work subjected to “derogatory treatment”. Derogatory treatment refers to “anything done in relation to a work that is prejudicial to the author’s honour or reputation”. However, this is subject to a defence where treatment of the work was reasonable. Moral rights are rarely relied upon in Australia but may become relevant in similar cases if artists feel that the way in which their music is sold adversely and unreasonably affects their reputation.
The case is thought to be the first in which a record label was successfully challenged for the manner in which it sold an artist’s music online. Other bands may similarly seek to assert control over how their music is sold online.