Marc Bolan, front-man of the early 70’s English glam-rock group “T-Rex” always knew he was destined to be a teenage idol. What he could not have known was that after he died in a car wreck in 1977 at age 29, his two-year old son and sole heir Rolan would still be litigating the legacy of his copyrights, 35 years later.
Born in the east end of post-war London in 1947, his parents were Simeon Feld, a truck driver, and Phyllis Feld who operated a fruit stall in the market. His loving parents bought him his first guitar when he was nine; as a young teen he performed with mates from school but was expelled or dropped out by age 15. With immaculate style, arrogance, and a desire to be rich and famous, he had fallen into the mod scene of the early 60s, stealing or hustling motor scooters to pay for his obsession with fashion and clothing. By the mid-60s he had recorded his first music single and made an appearance on “Ready, Steady, Go,” one of the UK’s first pop music television shows, a forerunner of MTV-type programming.
By 1968 Mark Feld had become Marc Bolan. He was making folksy, experimental, hippy music, briefly with a group called “John’s Children” and then with his own psychedelic-folk-rock duo, “Tyrannosaurus Rex”. The group consisted of Bolan sitting cross-legged playing acoustic guitar, with Steve Peregrin Took on bongo drums. His drummer’s name came from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Much of Bolan’s musical imagery was fantastic, and more than some would have said, drug-induced.
However, BBC Radio One’s influential DJ John Peel championed Tyrannosaurus Rex in their early career, and they caught the attention of American record producer Tony Visconti who had recently moved to London. Visconti would go on to work closely with Bolan, and Bolan’s good friend David Bowie, producing a string of hit recordings for each of them in the 1970s.
Bolan was not yet a pop star when, in October, 1968, on London’s Oxford Street, he signed a one-year music publishing agreement with Essex Music International Limited, with two additional one-year options. In consideration of an advance of £500, the copyright in all of Bolan’s prior songs and any songs written during the contract term were assigned to Essex, subject to the requirement that Essex pay to the artist 70% of all mechanical fees, 70% of all synchronization fees and 50% of the publisher’s share of public performance royalties. Although lacking many clauses seen in modern music publishing contracts such as a basket clause to capture revenues from new technologies, it was not a bad deal by today’s standards for a new artist.
As the 60s drew to a close, and now with Visconti’s finesse in the producer’s booth, Tyrannosaurus Rex went through a metamorphosis becoming T-Rex. With a shorter name, a new lineup, and a tighter, electric sound, Bolan returned to his rock and roll roots as a glam rocker, although at the time his fans referred to his version of glam as “T-Rextacy.” The hits included “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”, “Jeepster,” “Telegram Sam,” “Cosmic Dancer,” “Metal Guru,” and “20th Century Boy.” Bolan now strutted in front of a wall of amplifiers, typically playing a Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson Flying V or a white Fender Stratocaster, wearing a satin outfit, a top hat, a feather boa, sparkles on his cheeks, and platform shoes to give himself an extra lift since he was not particularly tall.
There is no doubt that Marc Bolan earned millions in the 1970s. Where it all went however, has been the subject of considerable debate. Bolan’s life and career as a pop star came to a crashing halt one evening in September, 1977 when the purple Mini 1275 GT driven by his backup singer and fiancée Gloria Jones went off the road less than a mile from the home they shared, killing Bolan instantly and seriously injuring Jones.
Bolan had planned to marry Jones, the mother of his two-year old son Rolan as soon as his divorce from his first wife June Child was finalized. In accordance with UK divorce laws, a “decree nisi” already had been granted. They were waiting for the “decree absolute” to make the divorce official so Bolan could legally remarry. In the weeks before his death, Bolan had met with a new lawyer in London to discuss the changes in his personal life. This was part of larger effort to get his finances back in order after a long period of mismanagement. A new will had been discussed but it had not yet been made. “Marc died very prematurely,” his new lawyer James Ware has said. “In hindsight, that may be, it would have been sensible for a will to have been made in contemplation of his divorce.”
Bolan’s original will still governed. It had been made in 1973 before the birth of Rolan. In the 1973 will there were specific bequests to various people but it made no provision for Rolan who was born out-of-wedlock. It made no matter because there was no money in the estate to pay. Overnight Jones went from living a rock-star lifestyle with Bolan to financial hardship with no income or child support. She returned with Rolan to live in the United States. They had very little to bring with them, especially since fans had looted their home after learning of Bolan’s death. Years later it was revealed that after Bolan’s death, David Bowie was quietly providing for Rolan during his childhood, on behalf of his late friend Marc.
In the 1970s income tax rates in the UK for high-earning individuals were crippling, at 83% being the individual rate, to a top rate on investment income with surcharges of 98%. Following the lead of many other rock stars and performers of the day, Marc Bolan had become a tax exile before he died. The majority of his assets had been placed in an offshore trust, called Wizard (Bahamas) Limited, which later moved to the Cayman Islands.
When Bolan’s family made enquiries to the offshore trust regarding the whereabouts of all Bolan’s “millions” they were stonewalled. The trust was shrouded in secrecy. Bolan’s family called it the “Bermuda Triangle.” However, the UK’s Inland Revenue department (now HM Revenue and Customs) took the view that Bolan’s estate owed a huge income tax bill after Bolan’s death and set about to collect it. Inland Revenue tracked-down the money by applying pressure on Bolan’s ex-wife June Child, who was said to face prosecution in the UK for having been a director of a UK company that had participated in the offshore transfer. The income tax bill ended up being settled in an agreement between Inland Revenue, the offshore trust, and Child – all of which remains confidential to this day. Child died soon after of a heart attack while vacationing in Turkey.
Wizard (Bahamas) denied Rolan from getting any regular payments. The reason given was that under the laws governing the offshore trust, illegitimate children were not recognized as legal heirs. Because Rolan’s mother, Gloria had not been married to Bolan she was said to have no legal status so she was shut out too. Bolan’s producer Tony Visconti also had trouble getting paid royalties by the offshore trust and eventually sued. After a 25-year battle and “seven legal teams,” Visconti resolved his dispute with the trust, and this in turn cleared the way for a settlement between the trust and Rolan, who is now said to receive a “controlled” yearly allowance from the trust fund.
As with many top-selling music artists, Marc Bolan had a team of professionals making decisions for him. When he died prematurely, his team was left with inadequate instructions that most likely did not reflect his wishes. As the money from his musical legacy continued to pour into the offshore trust and to seemingly disappear, this created an appearance of impropriety – that his estate was being milked by accountants, lawyers and bankers. The true facts remain confidential, but the appearances were less than flattering. Rolan is still trying to untangle the remainder of the financial mess that was left behind after his father’s untimely death.
The most recent effort by Rolan to reclaim his father’s legacy has been a lawsuit commenced in July, 2013 in the United States District Court, Central District of California, Rolan Seymour Feld v. Westminster Music Limited and Essex Music International, Inc. Rolan is represented by Robert E. Allen, former senior counsel at Universal Music Publishing Group and PolyGram Music Publishing Group, and now a member of the Los Angeles-based law firm Gradstein & Marzano, P.C.
The 2013 suit explores emerging area of copyright law grappling with reversionary rights under U.S. copyright legislation. Canada does not have similar statutory provisions, regarding the possibility of reversion after an initial term of copyright has expired, but the implications nonetheless are profound. Since U.S. and international laws are so closely aligned in the entertainment business, it remains to be seen what kind of impact the result of the 2013 suit could have for copyright ownership agreements signed outside the U.S.
Even if the legal results of the current Rolan Feld suit are corralled entirely within the territory of the U.S. and do not have any extra-territorial effect, the practical results still could be felt if U.S. music publishing rights are to be carved-out of international deals by the U.S. courts. Moreover, on the facts of the Rolan Feld case, where an English contract is being made the subject of U.S. copyright reversion claims, the door may become opened for persons interested in copyrights originating from countries outside the U.S. to launch reversion suits in the U.S. for the purpose of taking over the U.S. market for the works. Potential defences by U.S. copyright proprietors against non-U.S. plaintiffs might include lack of jurisdiction and forum-shopping but in the current suit Rolan clearly is a U.S. resident seeking to avail himself of U.S. remedies.
Specifically, Rolan claims that under the 1978 United States Copyright Act, the copyrights in the works governed by the music publishing agreement signed with Essex Music International in 1968 – a contract made under the laws of England -reverted to Marc Bolan’s sole heir Rolan automatically upon the expiry of the first term of the copyright, which at the time was 28 years. The suit alleges that under prior holdings in Stewart v. Abend (1990) and Miller Music Corp. v. Charles N. Daniels, Inc. (1960), a grant by an author of the renewed and extended term of a further 67 years (for a total of 95) is a “contingent” interest only, and a party receiving such interest has an “expectancy” interest only, whereby if the author dies during the initial term the copyright vests automatically in the author’s statutory heirs. The Copyright Act is cited as confirmation that there would be no need for a registration of that reversion.
The policy behind the U.S. legislation was to assist the heirs of composers to reclaim their financial legacy in situations where the composer died prematurely. On its face the suit alleges that U.S. copyright legislation would govern the outcome of the same issue in other countries; i.e. that Essex would lose its copyrights globally, depending on the outcome of the U.S. suit.
The Rolan Feld suit echoes other copyright reversion issues currently pending or recently decided in the U.S. courts in situations where the copyright originally had been assigned, not created as a work-for-hire; for example, Scorpio Music (Black Scorpio) S.A. and Can’t Stop Productions, Inc. v. Victor Willis (2012), where Scorpio tried and failed to stop Willis, an original member of The Village People, from exercising a 35-year reversion of his rights to songs such as “YMCA.”
Westminster and Essex have strenuously defended the Rolan Bolan suit. They base their defence largely on the notion that the claim is statute-barred because of the 3-year limitation for bringing actions under the Copyright Act. They allege that the original 28-year copyright term of the compositions at issue in the litigation expired, at the latest, in 2000 – thirteen years earlier than the commencement of the suit. They also allege the equitable defence of laches. They say that they have devoted substantial money, time and resources toward the continued promotion, exploitation and administration of the compositions and thereby would suffer prejudice as a result of Rolan Feld’s delay in bringing the suit. They say that their association with these copyrights always has been a matter of public record and that during the entire duration of the renewal period, Rolan obviously was aware that he was not receiving royalties directly. They say they dutifully and properly paid royalties solely to the estate of Marc Bolan, pursuant to long-standing contractual obligations. These are the same contractual obligations that the family has been trying to untangle since the time of Bolan’s death.
In the 2013 copyright reversion suit commenced by Rolan Feld in the U.S, it is paradoxical that after all these years since his father’s death, the main defence to his effort to reclaim his legacy might be that he has waited too long.