Yesterday, Getting Publishing Rights to Beatles Songs Seemed So Far Away



Paul McCartney reportedly never forgave Michael Jackson for buying a song catalog containing the songs he wrote with John Lennon. Now he’s apparently trying to take the music back. 

Billboard reports that McCartney is again launching an attempt to acquire the publishing rights to the Beatles songs that Jackson acquired 30 years ago. 

The story goes that when Jackson and Paul McCartney collaborated on “Say Say Say” and “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson found out how profitable it was to acquire copyright interests in other people’s compositions. He used that knowledge in 1985 to acquire ATV Music Publishing, which owned the Northern Songs catalog and other rock super hits, for $45 million. 

Northern Songs owned most of Lennon and McCartney’s compositions for the Beatles. 

When Jackson acquired ATV, McCartney revealed in an interview that he felt wronged by his friend and collaborator, even though he and Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono had apparently been given opportunities to purchase the catalog but couldn’t get it for the price they wanted. 

“I think it’s dodgy to do something like that,” McCartney was quoted as saying. “To be someone’s friend, and then buy the rug they’re standing on.” 

Later, Sony bought half of ATV from Jackson, who died in 2009. It renamed it Sony/ATV and recently announced that it was exercising an option to buy the rest of the company from Jackson’s estate for $750 million. 

Meanwhile, according to the Billboard report, McCartney filed a termination notice with respect to a few dozen of his songs back in December. The termination provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §§203 and 304(c),  are intended to give a copyright holder or their heirs a “second bite at the apple” so they can seek a better deal for work whose value might not have been apparent when first sold. 

The termination right was created out of concern that up-and-coming artists with little negotiating power at the beginning of their careers might be pressured into agreeing to disadvantageous contract terms. It’s essentially a way to save them from living with a bad deal forever. 

In McCartney’s case, he is seeking to cancel deals that allowed Northern Songs to get control of his compositions in the first place. According to Billboard, McCartney’s termination notices cover mostly songs from the early 1960s but also some from the “Abbey Road” album.  The termination dates for the songs would be in 2025. 

McCartney would only be reclaiming rights under U.S. law. And he’d only be able to get control of his share of the songs, not Lennon’s. Those are up to Lennon’s heirs to pursue.