Lawyers to the stars

Representing celebrities is only one part of the story for media practitioners, reports Roger Pearson. Roger Pearson is a freelance journalist.

Show business, from the theatre and film worlds through the pop music industry to the Arts and sport, has become a growth area of practice for lawyers.

If evidence was needed of the importance the legal profession places on the entertainment sector, a head count of lawyers attending the music industry’s international Midam showcase in Cannes at the end of this month would provide it.

An estimated 150 showbusiness legal specialists from all over the world will be attending the event. It has become so popular with lawyers in recent years that they now have a conference of their own at the event.

Among regular attenders are two of the UK’s top entertainment lawyers Mark Stephens of Stephens Innocent and Brian Eagles of Hammond Suddards. Their client lists read like a show business Who’s Who. The Bar is also represented in the form of Kevin Garnett QC from 5 New Square.

With an increasing showbusiness involvement is Rory Khilkoff-Boulding, head of Kent-based Khilkoff-Boulding & Co, who cut his teeth in entertainment law as a partner with Clintons. He has recently represented the Glitter Band, made up of some members of Gary Glitter’s original group, in a passing-off dispute.

Khilkoff-Boulding is currently planning to expand his entertainment sector involvement and, with an eye to international business, has become registered to practise in the US.

One thing that Stephens, Eagles and Khilkoff-Boulding are all agreed on is that the world of entertainment generally is going to provide increasingly important business for the profession. It is a field which, from the highest profile clients to the less well-known, throws up a variety of legal problems.

Celebrity names such as Robbie Williams, George Michael, Boy George and the Spice Girls capture major attention when they go to court. But there are also battles on behalf of the less well-known. For example, Sid Shaw of London, represented by Stephen Whybrow, an IP partner with Cameron McKenna, warded off moves to stop him using the name Elvis Presley on items marketed by him. Shaw’s victory in the merchandising sector was of major significance.

Defamation, copyright and contract law are at the top of the list of problems media lawyers find themselves asked to deal with. Defamation is an area which, probably more than any other, results in the ’glitterati’ heading for court. That is because of the current blanket coverage given by the press to showbusiness personalities, says Stephens, whose client list includes names such as Paula Yates, Philip Schofield and, most recently, Anthea Turner.

Stephens thinks the trend for the media to blitz personalities, which inevitably leads to libel actions, began with the coverage given to Boy George in the 1980s in his early years centre stage. Says Stephens: ’He got tremendous coverage as a teen idol and pop star, probably more than anyone had ever had, and it started a trend which has continued to the present day.’

But Eagles stresses the other side of the coin. He has represented countless big names, but his current casebook, for example, involves representing Retail Broadcast Services (RBS) in six applications to the Copyright Tribunal in a dispute over Phonographic Performance (PPL) fees. And he is acting in a dispute over unauthorised use of the Chelsea Football Club logo. Eagles has also been closely involved in drawing up financial arrangements for film licensing rights.

Cases such as these are vital to the entertainment world. However, Eagles hopes that in the future there will be less need for high-profile clients to make public appearances in the High Court. He is a strong advocate of mediation rather than litigation and thinks that as use of mediation becomes more popular, the knock-on effect could be that it will save celebrity clients the embarrassment of unwanted courtroom exposure.

One thing both Eagles and Stephens stress to any lawyer planning to take on showbusiness clients is the need to offer a complete package. Client representation does not stop at the obvious. They say that showbusiness specialists need to be prepared to become involved in any legal matter, from will making, house conveyancing and divorce through to the purchase of items like aeroplanes and boats.