'Don't Break My Copyright'

Roger Pearson

The recent High Court action in which Birmingham secretary Debbie Banks sued pop group UB40 was a battle against the odds. And with the aid of Beasley & Johnson, of Kings Heath, Birmingham, she triumphed.

Banks claimed she was responsible for co-authorship of one of the group's chart-topping hits.

The ruling by Mr Justice Harman that Banks is entitled to a share of royalties – still to be assessed – from the 1995 hit, Don't Break My Heart, made national news on its facts.

But Steve Beasley, a self-confessed novice in copyright law at the time he was first confronted with Banks' claim, said that from a procedural point of view the case was more than just a David and Goliath battle.

"This case is one of the best examples I have ever seen of the law and legal aid working exactly as they are intended to work," said Beasley.

Banks, an amateur poet and songwriter since her school days had written a song for a friend who at one stage was a member of UB40. He had told her that if it was recorded he would "see her right". However, he left the group and, unbeknown to her, was paid £10,000 by UB40 for the song.

The group, knowing nothing about her part in the song's composition, recorded it and the first Banks knew was when she heard it on the radio.

It was at that stage she went to see Beasley, a partner in a primarily legal aid based practice and told him her story.

"It's not the sort of case you expect to be confronted with in a practice like ours," he confessed. "My immediate reaction was 'Can this be true?' But Debbie Banks seemed such a genuine person that I believed from a very early stage it was.

"Having decided that, we needed to arrange legal aid because she could not finance an action of this nature herself. At the end of the day I would estimate the costs for both sides to be in excess of £200,000.

"This is where I view the case as being such a good example of the law and legal aid working for once exactly as they should. We had a client, who certainly did not have the funds to fight for her rights, she obtained the legal aid support necessary despite the unusual nature of the claim, and at the end of the day won the justice she deserved."

Obtaining legal aid was just the beginning of Beasley's headache. His first problem was that he had never handled a copyright matter before.

That was a challenge he met with the aid of London barrister Alison Firth, a copyright expert, and whose help he said was "invaluable". And in court the team was led by another copyright specialist Alistair Wilson QC.

As with most small firms who find themselves catapulted out of their ordinary field of operations, Beasley found the case had quite an impact on everyday practice.

"Larger firms have sufficient people to cope with the increased workload, but we did not have the same sort of facilities as those firms and had to absorb the extra work along with the rest of our caseload," he said.

"One thing that was invaluable in coping with the high workload and with the many interlocutories taking place in London, was the use of London agents Hempsons. That went a long way to ease the load."

The case, is, however, far from over. While Mr Justice Harman has decided Debbie Banks is entitled to royalties further hearings still have to take place to decide how much she is entitled to and how payment of the money should be apportioned among the defendants to the action who include group leader Ali Campbell and other group members. Those hearings are due to take place in the autumn.