Forget Gareth and Will - the real winners are the judges

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The Independent Online

They were just two more star-struck wannabes who wanted to conquer the charts. But thanks to the latest reality TV sensation, they have become two of the hottest properties on the UK music scene.

After four months of sharing the limelight with teary-eyed young singing hopefuls, Simon Cowell and Nicki Chapman can now finally claim their prizes as the true winners of Pop Idol.

As Gareth Gates and Will Young made their final bid for votes on the ITV1 talent show last night, the Ts were being crossed on contracts destined to net two of the judges on the series millions of pounds apiece. The huge windfalls will arise from their interests in the two main players behind the programme, the production and management company 19 and the record giant BMG.

Meanwhile, Mr Cowell, notorious for his withering put-downs, is gearing up to squeeze yet more capital from his "Mr Nasty" image. He is privately vying with the show's executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, who gained a similar reputation on Popstars, to become the "next Anne Robinson" when Pop Idol makes its inevitable transition to America.

When last night's winner finally releases his debut single later this month, he will be lucky to see more than 20 per cent of the royalties. Between them, BMG and 19 will pocket the bulk of the proceeds from this and all subsequent records, merchandise, sponsorship deals and personal appearance fees.

In a deal unprecedented in its complexity, the two companies are believed to have secured a 20 per cent stake in the future earnings of all nine of the programme's semi-finalists. It has also emerged that the last 50 contestants left in the competition were ordered to sign contracts pledging not to enter into deals with any party other than 19 or Thames Television, the show's makers, until at least three months after last night's episode.

Industry insiders believe the agreement could net BMG and 19 a combined total of £25m in the next year alone – at least five times a much as the show's winner. The deal represents the latest in a long line of lucrative coups for Mr Cowell, 42, a veteran hit-maker and former director of BMG. It will also enable Ms Chapman, 34, who earned her crust as a Spice Girls promoter before becoming the public face of 19, to graduate to the big pay league.

Neither of the companies would comment on the exact nature of the documents presented to the Pop Idol contestants on grounds that they are confidential. However, a contract seen by The Independent on Sunday, and signed by one of the final 50 contestants, contains a clause which reads: "I have not previously and will not from the date of this agreement until three months from the first transmission of the last episode of the programme enter into any commercial, contractual, sponsorship or other agreement or arrangement with any person, firm or company other than the producer and/or 19 Management Ltd (or any associated company) in respect of my musical and/or performing abilities or the products thereof or in respect of my name, likeness, image or biography."

Music lawyers believe the Pop Idol contracts could be open to legal challenge on the grounds that they amount to a "restraint of trade". James Collins, who has represented the indie band Feeder, said: "The question is whether three months is a reasonable amount of time. The answer is almost certainly no, particularly as it's blocking them from doing anything at a time when their fame is at its height."

One former contestant who is known to have breached the terms of his contract is Rik Waller. Rik, 20, from Gillingham, Kent, signed a £400,000 contract with EMI last month, and will release his first single, a cover of Dolly Parton's classic I Will Always Love You, on 4 March.

A Thames spokeswoman said: "The 50 contestants who signed the contract were all fully briefed. Nobody was forced to sign it, and these issues about specific clauses did not come up as a concern."