Leading Article: George Michael returns to millionaire slavery

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YESTERDAY's judgment in the High Court case between George Michael and his record company marks a swing of the pendulum. For most of the past 20 years, judges have been increasingly protective of naive young musicians, and increasingly suspicious of the powerful record companies with which they sign contracts. That has now changed; but Sony's is a Pyrrhic victory.

The singer's deal with CBS Records, first struck in 1984, bound him to the company until 2003 or until he had made eight albums. CBS (now Sony) undertook to release only a few singles from each album - and if it decided not to distribute the albums, George Michael had no right to sell them elsewhere.

Yet the High Court judge had good reason yesterday to deny Mr Michael's claim that the contract was an 'unreasonable restraint of trade'. The two sides renegotiated it twice. In 1988, the year of his hit album Faith, George Michael was paid more than pounds 11m. And since the singer had highly paid managers and lawyers advising him, his portrayal of himself as a 'professional slave', defenceless against the corporate might of Sony, looks weak indeed.

When the case opened, several record companies prepared to preempt future actions by reducing their standard contract length from eight albums to a more reasonable four or five. Yesterday's judgment, and the robust view it took of millionaire artists complaining of ill- treatment, may encourage them to think again.

Mr Michael, who still has plenty of money to pay his legal bills, has promised to appeal - and may go as far as the House of Lords. But the music industry will be unwise if it tries to flex its muscles in negotiation with artists in the meantime. Record companies may be perfectly able to prevent artists working for their competitors, and force them into inactivity if they refuse to toe the line. But they cannot force singers to sing, or songwriters to write songs.

The fact that the case went to court, and ran there for 74 days, demonstrates a failure on Sony's part. A skilful record company will threaten litigation, resist attempts to extract more money from it, and certainly write rude letters. But it should remember that a talented artist is a rare commodity that needs careful handling - whatever the contracts say.