Who owns Bob Marley’s music?

The High Court was asked to decide last month who owns the copyright to No Woman, No Cry in a major battle for a piece of music that marks its 40th anniversary this year

Who is Vincent Ford? Here’s a clue, he ran a soup kitchen in a ghetto in Kingston in Jamaica, known as Trenchtown. He is also credited with writing one of the most famous reggae songs of the 20th century: No Woman, No Cry.

This week Ford became the subject of a High Court judgment.

The case saw two music companies, BSI Enterprises and Cayman Music, attempt to wrestle royalty rights for the anthem from rival Blue Mountain Music.

It was after the rights to 13 reggae songs performed by the prolific Bob Marley between October 1973 and October 2976. Among them were Natty Dread, Rat Race, Rebel Music (Road Block) and Who the Cap Fit.

Cayman represented Marley’s music catalogue between 1967 and 1976. It instructed Briffa Solicitors name partner Margaret Briffa to bring the case. In turn, she instructed 11 South Square’s Hugo Cuddington.

Cuddington went up against Blackstone Chambers’ heavyweight Ian Mill QC, who was instructed by Russells Solicitors consultant Brian Howard for Blue Mountain Music.

The claimant barrister contended that under a contract put together 11 years after Marley’s death in 1992, the copyright of the 13 songs should be transferred to Cayman.

He argued that the records in question had been “fraudulently” attributed to other people by Marley to avoid the provisions of that 1973 agreement. Ford, the man who ran the soup kitchen in Trenchtown, is believed to be one such phantom writer. The song was believed to have been written in Ford’s flat and he is understood to have used the royalties to fund the kitchen until his death in 2008.

According to the judgment Marley, “deliberately misattributed their authorship to various friends and associates. It is clear that his object in doing this was to gain control of the copyrights in the works and gain remuneration from them.

“This therefore benefited him, and it also benefited the persons to whom authorship was wrongly attributed because they received royalties from various collecting societies”.

Mill said Blue Mountain, which was responsible for administering royalties for the works, accepted the allegation. Nevertheless, he contended that the claim should be dismissed on the “straightforward application of ordinary principles of contract law”, given that Marley’s false claim that others had written the songs was a poor ruse. In other words, nobody was fooled that Ford had been responsible for one of Marley’s biggest hits.

Mr Richard Meade QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court judge, commended Cuddigan’s “tenacious and imaginative” case, but said he had no hesitation in rejecting it.

The judge concluded, “the claimants have no rights in the works because the copyrights in the works passed to Island (specifically Island Logic Ltd) under the March 1992 Agreement”.