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Learn what publication rights are
Who actually owns The Beatles’ music?
Find out what role Michael Jackson played in this story
In the 62 years of its existence, the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog have changed hands quite a few times.
Copyright is a confusing subject in and of itself, and the saga of the Beatles catalog is a particularly complicated case.
The short answer is that Paul McCartney and Sony/ATV both own publication rights to the Beatles catalog, but this was not always the case.
Copyright: A Brief Introduction
Copyright is essentially a means of protecting original works of authorship as soon as they are fixed in a tangible form.
In the case of music, this means any original musical work is protected by copyright as soon as it is recorded, either in writing or in an audio recording.
What happens with that copyright after it comes to life is a question for the various creative and business entities in music creation and distribution. This article is concerned almost entirely with publication rights.
Publication rights are fascinating because the history of the relative importance of publication rights outlines major shifts in the history of 20th-century popular music.
The Beatles were at the cutting edge of many musical innovations, and one of these was the concept of the self-contained band playing mostly originals.
The first half of the 20th century situated composers and songwriters as separate entities from performers, with publishers working as intermediaries between the two.
With The Beatles (and their contemporaries), though, the songwriters and performers were one and the same, bringing into question the role and relative importance of the publisher.
The story that follows should help to elucidate the importance of this question.
The Beatles’ Music Ownership Timeline
Our story begins in 1963, when The Beatles released their debut studio album, Please Please Me.
The record’s release posed a novel problem for their then-manager Brian Epstein, who needed to find a publisher for the eight songs on the album written by the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Dick James filled that role and formed Northern Songs as a limited company, along with the manager and two songwriters.
In 1965, Northern Songs went public to reduce the company’s income tax burden.
The 20% shares afforded each to Lennon and McCartney in the original deal diminished to 15% each, worth just under £200,000, with Ringo Starr and George Harrison each splitting 1.6%, or about £20,000.
Harrison started his own publishing company, Mornyork, Ltd. (later renamed Harrisongs, Ltd.), in 1964. Ringo Starr followed suit in 1968 with Startling Music.
Both Starr and Harrison allowed their contracts with Northern Songs to lapse in 1968 so that their original publication rights would belong to their respective companies.
Lennon and McCartney stayed the course with Northern Songs, though, and renewed their contracts through 1973.
Within a year of the company going public, Lennon and McCartney had published 88 songs with Northern Songs.
After the untimely demise of Brian Epstein, Lennon and McCartney hoped to renegotiate their stake in Northern Songs.
They invited Dick James to a meeting at Apple Records that did not go all that well in 1968.
Afterward, in 1969, James and his business partner sold their shares of Northern Songs to Associated Television (ATV) Music for £1,525,000 without any notice to Lennon or McCartney, much less an opportunity to counter.
Lennon and McCartney attempted to bid their way back to a majority stake in Northern Songs, but the shrewd media proprietor Lew Grade prevented their every effort.
At the end of a particularly bitter power struggle, Lennon and McCartney both sold their stakes in the company to the tune of £3.5 million, though they were still compelled to publish with Northern Songs through 1973.
Associated Communications Corporation (ACC), the parent company to ATV, had a tough few years due to losses in its holdings in the film industry.
Lew Grade responded by attempting to sell off assets, including ATV.
McCartney and Yoko Ono (John Lennon’s widow as of 1980) attempted to buy Northern Songs from Lew Grade for £21 million, but Grade shrugged this off upon entertaining other offers for the entire ATV catalog.
Meanwhile, Robert Hamilton Holmes à Court, Australia’s first billionaire, had been buying shares of ACC leading up to a takeover bid he launched in January 1982.
He forced Grade to step down as chairman, replacing him as chairman in the process, and acquired a controlling interest in the company.
The ATV Music catalog went back up for sale in 1984, and in August of 1985, it was acquired by none other than… you guessed it… Michael Jackson.
“Say, Say, Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
“Say, Say, Say” was the second song Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney collaborated on as part of McCartney’s post-Beatles career, the first being “The Girl is Mine.”
It was supposedly during the several months in 1981 in which McCartney and Jackson were recording in Abbey Road Studios that McCartney responded to Jackson’s request for business advice by bringing out a thick book full of other people’s songs to which he had publication rights.
He told Jackson that this was the way to earn a lot of money, as he had made $40 million just by owning the rights.
Jackson responded by suggesting he would buy some Beatles’ songs, which McCartney perceived as a joke, but, sure enough, after allegedly offering Yoko Ono and McCartney the right of first refusal (both refused, as the catalog was too expensive for them at the time), Jackson bought the 4,000-song ATV Music catalog, including not only the original McCartney-Lennon collection but some Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley songs, among others, for £24.4 million.
There were rumors that Jackson and McCartney had something of a falling out due to the purchase, but a publicity photo of the two taken shortly after that was meant to assure the public that they were still friends.
That said, McCartney appeared on The David Letterman Show shortly after Jackson’s death in 2009 and told his story.
He supposedly went to Jackson shortly after his acquisition of the catalog to ask for a “raise” since he had played such an outsized role in the success of the catalog.
When Jackson refused, telling him, “that’s just business, Paul,” it had a cooling effect on their relationship, and they drifted apart.
Amid financial troubles, Jackson merged his ATV Music catalog with Sony Music Publishing’s catalog to form Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
He got £59 million out of the deal and retained a 50% share of the new company. Northern Songs was dissolved as a legal entity in this process.
With continued financial difficulties propelling Michael Jackson nearer and nearer to bankruptcy, Sony negotiated a refinancing of his debts and gained an option to acquire 50% of his 50% share in Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
After Jackson’s death in 2009, his estate came under the control of his attorney, John Branca, and John McClain, a music industry executive, named executor in Jackson’s 2002 will (though some members of the Jackson family find this questionable).
Jackson’s estate sold its share of Sony/ATV Music Publishing to Sony for $750 million.
In January 2017, Paul McCartney brought a lawsuit against Sony/ATV to recover publication rights to his work that, based on the 1976 U.S. Copyright Law changes, he would be eligible to recover in 2018.
The suit, McCartney v Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC et al., U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 17-00363, was settled out of court in June, which means the exact stipulations are not a matter of public record.
Though we do not know exactly how the settlement impacted McCartney’s publication rights, we do know that it was McCartney’s lawyer, Michael Jacobs, who requested the case be dismissed.
Thus, in response to the question, “Who owns The Beatles’ music?” it might be assumed that Paul McCartney owns more of it now than he did in 2017.
The music business is every bit as complex and nuanced as the music itself. The intersections of music history and music business history raise endless questions.
One could not help but wonder if The Beatles might have stuck together a bit longer if it hadn’t been for the disastrous early deals with Northern Songs that essentially cut Harrison and Starr out of the picture.
Moreover, how might Michael Jackson’s life have gone differently if he had gotten different business advice from Paul McCartney at that critical moment in his career? The music itself is just the tip of the iceberg.