Prison Sentence for Persistent Infringement of Copyright

Hamlins, acting for Phonographic Performance Limited (‘PPL’), secured a High Court ruling against John Fletcher of Newport, which found him in contempt of court for breaching an earlier injunction to prevent him from playing music in public without a licence from PPL.

The owner of The Birdcage, a popular bar in Newport, South Wales, has been ordered by the High Court to pay music licensing company PPL £20,000 (£6,000 in damages and £14,000 in court costs), and faces a prison sentence of 28 days if the venue continues to play recorded music without a PPL licence.

Mr Justice Arnold imposed the order and suspended prison sentence after hearing that Mr Fletcher, persistently failed to comply with the legal requirement to obtain a PPL music licence after being repeatedly contacted and given ample opportunity to rectify the situation.

Hamlins acted for PPL throughout the case and had previously obtained a High Court injunction against Mr Fletcher in 2013. That injunction was granted because The Birdcage nightclub was playing music without a PPL licence. Hamlins continued to investigate and obtained evidence that Mr Fletcher continued to play music at the premises without permission, in flagrant breach of the injunction. Acting on PPL’s instructions, Hamlins applied to have Mr Fletcher committed to prison for contempt and, having failed to attend the hearing listed for early May 2015, Mr Justice Newey issued a bench warrant for Mr Fletcher’s arrest. Officers of the Gwent Police Authority arrested Mr Fletcher at the premises and brought him to the Royal Courts of Justice in London to stand before Mr Justice Arnold the next day.

At the final hearing on 22 June 2015 Mr Fletcher conceded that he was indeed in breach of the order. Counsel for Mr Fletcher had, however, sought to argue that a custodial sentence was not appropriate and that PPL were not entitled to be awarded damages. Hamlins successfully resisted both of these contentions and Mr Justice Arnold granted PPL’s application to commit Mr Fletcher for contempt. In his view:

  • PPL’s evidence established a sorry history of failure by Mr Fletcher, first to obtain a licence and then failing to pay the licence fee. Although this was a first offence, the contempt committed was deliberate and the threshold for imposition of a custodial sentence had been crossed, though an immediate one was not appropriate.
  • The Judge imposed a sentence of 28 days’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, on condition that he stopped infringing PPL’s copyright.
  • Where infringement was established to the standard required to support an application to commit for breach of an injunction, there was no arguable defence to the copyright infringement claim and, as night follows day, the Court could award damages to PPL.
  • PPL was awarded £6,000 in damages, additional damages and interest. Mr Fletcher was also ordered to pay the costs of PPL’s application on an indemnity basis.

Martin Ochs, an Associate at Hamlins, said: “Hamlins have been protecting PPL’s copyright for 25 years and the courts have always treated copyright infringement seriously. This ruling compounds the many previous Judgments we have obtained against infringers and reiterates that people who run businesses and choose to play recorded music without a licence will face legal action, not simply for non-payment of licence fees, but also for breach of a Court Order which may lead to a custodial prison sentence.”