Under US law – the Copyright Act 1976 (the Act) – it is possible for artists to apply to reclaim copyright in their works 56 years after publication (provided the song was written before 1978, when the applicable provisions of the Act became effective). In order to do so, the artist must file a claim two to ten years before the expiry of the 56 years. There is no comparable provision in UK or EU law.
The John Lennon/Paul McCartney catalogue will qualify in this way from 2018. The catalogue is currently owned by Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Reportedly, however, last year McCartney began the process of regaining control of his half of the catalogue by filing a termination notice in respect of 32 songs. John Lennon’s half of the catalogue will remain with Sony/ATV, who reportedly reached a deal with Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, to that effect. All songs in the catalogue are credited to Lennon and McCartney regardless of who actually wrote them.
McCartney has previously expressed irritation at having to pay for the right to perform “Hey Jude”. He has reportedly long harboured a desire to regain copyright in the Beatles’ songs and was outbid by his former friend, the late Michael Jackson, who bought the ATV back catalogue – which includes the Beatles’ tracks – in 1985 for a reported US $47.5 million. Sony subsequently acquired the ATV catalogue.
This case recalls another case on which we recently reported – the successful litigation brought by the statutory heirs of the author of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” to reclaim copyright ownership of the song, the rights of which had previously been assigned to EMI.