...reclaiming copyright ownership
What do you get if you cross Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and the Sony Corporation? A sizeable lawsuit, that’s what. Luke Corcoran, Commercial Litigation Solicitor at Simpson Millar, provides the detail on what is set to be the mother of all music melees.
Paul McCartney, famous for knocking out the occasional song every now and then, has filed a copyright infringement claim against Sony/ATV, the music publishing wing of Sony Entertainment. He has taken this step in a bid to ‘Get Back’ the rights to the catalogue of Beatles songs that currently reside with Sony.
The mop-topped maestro lodged the lawsuit at the US District Court in New York, hoping to achieve what has been a personal goal for the latter part of his career.
Buying back copyright ownership
Back in the early 80s, when the copyrights to The Beatles’ body of work were up for grabs in the sale of ATV Music Publishing and its assets, McCartney was offered the back catalogue for £20million.
Not wanting to appear as though he was solely buying up his and his former songwriting partner’s joint legacy, he approached John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, with the intention of going 50/50 on the publishing rights.
When Ono refused, the deal fell through and the sale was opened up to the market.
Enter the king of pop
Michael Jackson, at that point riding high on various successes, including what is still the world’s best-selling album, Thriller, had been turned onto the lucrative investment that music publishing offered while recording a collaboration with the former Beatle himself.
Eyeing the opportunity to further swell his already bulging coffers, the capering king of pop put in a punt for ATV Music Publishing, solely interested in the copyrights available – including The Beatles’ cash cow of a catalogue.
Following some drawn out negotiations, Jackson acquired the properties for $45million.
Exit the king of pop
Fast forward to 2017 and ATV Music Publishing is now owned by Sony.
Michael Jacksons’ share was sold in the wake of the his death, giving the entertainment giant full control of the licensing of The Beatles’ songs, along with the lion’s share of the profits from royalties, commercial use etc.
US copyright law vs UK copyright law
The court case has been prompted by the expected reversion of ownership to McCartney and the estate of John Lennon in 2018. US copyright law contains a clause allowing authors (in this case Lennon and McCartney) to reclaim the rights to their work when a period of 35 years has passed. This applies to properties assigned after 1978.
So why has McCartney seen the need to bring a claim?
“Firstly, Paul McCartney has said he has made approaches to Sony/ATV to get confirmation of whether they will be fulfilling their part of the arrangement and surrendering copyright when the 35 year limit has passed. He alleges that he has received no such guarantee, with the corporation ‘refusing to acknowledge’ the termination notices.”
“This lack of communication has led McCartney to suspect they will be challenging his termination rights when the time arrives. This brings to mind a similar case from last year, where Birmingham-bred pop group, Duran Duran, faced a similar predicament.”
“In that instance, Duran Duran were attempting to assert their rights to terminate the copyright for their first 3 albums, owned by Gloucester Place Music, itself owned by Sony/ATV. The music publisher challenged the group’s bid on the grounds that the right to revert copyright to the songwriter after 35 years only applied in US law, whereas Duran Duran’s agreement was controlled by English law of contract – the UK being where the ownership rights were initially assigned.”
“In UK law, the creator(s) of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work is regarded as the first owner of copyright. This doesn’t apply if the work is created by an employee on behalf of an employer, where the latter receives first ownership. Copyright protection is asserted the moment the work is created and remains with the first owner – unless assigned via a legally binding contract to another party – until their death and then with their estate for an additional 70 years, after which it enters the public domain.”
“In the Duran Duran case, which was heard last December (2016), the judge sided with the publishing group, ruling that the musicians had acted in breach of their existing agreements under UK contract law, by issuing the copyright termination notices. A decision which the band has said they will appeal.”
“Whether this will have any bearing upon the McCartney case will remain to be seen, although the fact he has chosen to file the claim in the US may play in his favour. No doubt other artists considering similar copyright reversions will be keeping a keen eye on this one, as will the branch of the legal industry that deals with intellectual property.”
Written by Luke Corcoran.
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