Economy First Look

Paul McCartney sues Sony to regain control over 267 Beatles songs

The Beatles legend asked a judge to rule that he could retrieve copyright control over songs he co-wrote with John Lennon, in a battle that may set an important precedent for the music industry.

Musician Paul McCartney takes the stage to perform at the Desert Trip music festival at Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., on Oct. 8, 2016. The former Beatles band member is suing Sony to regain control over some of the groups classic songs.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
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Paul McCartney wants the rights to his songs back – and he’s doing everything he can to ensure that his latest opportunity to reclaim them doesn’t slip through his fingers.

On Wednesday, Sir Paul filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan. In the suit, he asked a judge to confirm that he wouldn’t be breaking a contract by retrieving a collection of his songs under copyright termination law. The law allows artists to reclaim the rights to their work after a certain number of years, but executives at Sony – which owns the rights to these songs – had suggested that McCartney’s work was not eligible, thanks to contracts he signed in Britain.

The suit could be a key battle in the sphere of music copyrights. Not only is the collection of classic Beatles songs one of the most valuable in the world, but it could also set an important precedent for artists who sign contracts outside the United States.

“A judicial declaration is necessary and appropriate at this time so that Paul McCartney can rely on quiet, unclouded title to his rights,” the filed lawsuit read, according to the Associated Press.

Between September 1962 and June 1971, McCartney co-wrote 267 songs for the Beatles with the late John Lennon. McCartney has long wanted to retrieve the copyright to these songs. In 1985, however, he was outbid by Michael Jackson for publishing rights to the songs, and the songs later became part of Jackson’s label, based at Sony. In 2016, Jackson’s estate sold the rights to the songs to Sony Corp for $750 million, The Guardian reported.

But US copyright law may provide another route for McCartney to retrieve his songs. The US Copyright Act of 1976 gives creators the right to reclaim their work from publishers after a certain period of time has elapsed. In recent years, the New York Times noted, an increasing number of music artists have used the law to regain control of their songs — and gain the financial upper hand:

“When Prince’s classic albums were nearing the point at which he could reclaim them, he struck a lucrative new deal with his label, Warner Bros., to let the company continue to release his music.”

The first of McCartney’s songs to become eligible for so-called copyright termination is “Love Me Do,” in October 2018. The rest would gradually become available over the following eight years, the Associated Press reported.

McCartney’s lawyers have been laying the groundwork for him to retrieve the rights since October 2008, his lawsuit indicated, according to Reuters. But executives at Sony reportedly suggested that the Beatles songs might not be covered under copyright termination after all, the lawsuit continued.

Why? In a case decided in December, a judge ruled that British pop band Duran Duran was prevented from reclaiming their rights in the US, thanks to their original contract, which was signed in Britain. McCartney and Lennon likewise signed multiple publishing contracts in Britain, according to the New York Times.

That uncertainty led McCartney and his lawyers to seek confirmation from a judge that McCartney would not be violating a contract if he were to reclaim his songs under US copyright law. 

For its part, Sony declared itself “disappointed” in the lawsuit, which it termed “unnecessary and premature.”

“We have collaborated closely with both Sir Paul and the late John Lennon’s Estate for decades to protect, preserve and promote the catalog’s long-term value,” the company said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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