Sir Paul McCartney sues Sony over Beatles songs

In what could become one of the most important legal battles in music, Sir Paul McCartney is suing Sony for control of the publishing rights to 267 of the band’s songs.

Despite becoming one of the most successful and acclaimed bands in history, the Beatles actually signed away their publishing rights at the start of their career on the advice of their then manager Brain Epstein. Sir Paul McCartney, who wrote a large proportion of the Beatles back catalogue along with bandmate John Lennon, has been trying to reclaim these rights since the 1980s – when Michael Jackson famously out-bid him for these. However, since his death Jackson’s debt-ridden estate sold on its 50% share of Sony ATV Music Publishing back to Sony for $750m (£526m) in March last year.

Sir Paul’s legal case, filed in a Manhattan court on Wednesday, is over what is known as copyright termination – the right of authors to reclaim ownership of their works from music publishers after a specific length of time has passed. In Sir Paul’s case, he will become eligible after 56 years from publishing, which means the first of the Beatles songs- Love Me Do- could revert back to him in 2018. This mechanism was part of the US 1976 Copyright Act and in recent years’ performers such as Prince, Billy Joel, and Blondie have all made use of it to regain control of their work.

In the case of the Beatles the work comes from the Lennon-McCartney back catalogue, composed between September 1962 and June 1971, and can only revert back to McCartney as Lennon’s rights were sold back to Sony/ATV Music in 2009 by Yoko Ono.

Regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, most of the Lennon-McCartney songs will still not revert back to him for several years. Instead, it seems that what McCartney wants is for Sony to recognise his termination rights so these songs will revert back to him in due course. He has been sending notices to Sony for several years to achieve this, unsuccessfully, and now wants a court declaration that he can regain the copyright at the appropriate time, as well as recovering his legal fees.

Sir Paul’s case may be hampered by a recent British High Court decision which went against Duran Duran in a similar attempt to regain control of their music. The UK court ruled that the contracts the band signed in the UK took precedence over their rights in the US. This was a serious blow considering that under UK law a music publishing company can control the copyright for up to 70 years after the artist’s death.

Despite Sir Paul filing his case in the US, it is possible Sony will endeavour to use the UK Duran Duran decision to their advantage and accuse McCartney of breach of contract. This looks likely as the Duran Duran litigation is not yet over and Sony are waiting to witness its final outcome. Either way, the verdict of the McCartney lawsuit may have major ramifications for other British artists seeking to regain control of their work.