Legendary songwriter Paul McCartney has begun the process of acquiring the rights to songs he co-wrote with John Lennon while both were members of the Beatles. Although McCartney and Lennon authored most of the band’s hits, they signed over their copyrights at the start of their career on the advice of manager Brian Epstein. By assigning those rights to a music publisher, Lennon and McCartney let others determine how to exploit their songs, for example by licensing uses in advertising film or television. In return, Lennon and McCartney – like other songwriters – earned money whenever the songs were sold, performed, or covered. In McCartney’s case, royalties have enabled him to amass a personal fortune.
While writing alongside Lennon, ownership of the compositions went to Northern Springs, a company founded by the band’s manager, Brian Epstein. After Epstein’s death in 1967, Northern Springs was sold to ATV Music. In one of the music industry’s more infamous deals, Michael Jackson purchased ATV in 1985 – reportedly after receiving advice from McCartney himself on the benefits of publishing rights ownership. Jackson outbid McCartney, his friend at the time, paying in excess of $47.5 million. McCartney was unable to forge a deal between himself and Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, to make a joint purchase of the catalogue of songs. McCartney made his dissatisfaction with Jackson clear in subsequent interviews. Currently, the value of the catalogue is estimated at over $750 million.
Under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 (17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.), copyright owners – including songwriters – have the ability to terminate licenses and assignments (as we have previously posted here). For copyrights created prior to 1978, termination rights commence after the last of two 28-year terms – i.e., 56 years. Many of the songs in the Lennon McCartney catalogue turn 56 in 2018. Since McCartney and Lennon shared songwriting credit for almost everything they wrote, McCartney can recapture only his share of the copyrights, and only in the United States. Other publishing companies will still own the rights to the catalogue outside of the United States. Lennon’s copyrights became eligible for reversion in 1990 because of his death during the first 28-year term. Under a clause in the Copyright Act, heirs of songwriters who die during the first 28-year term can recapture the publisher’s portion of copyrighted works at the end of that term. However, Ono cut a deal with the publishing company prior to the reversion dates, which allows the company to retain Lennon’s share of the publishing rights for the life of the copyright.
The law requires that claimants file for reinstatement of copyrights 2 to 10 years prior to the expiration of the 56-year period. On December 15, 2015, McCartney sent out notices of termination pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 304(c) for at least 32 of his published songs, including such hits as “Back in the USSR,” “Hey Jude,” and “Revolution.” Even though many of the songs listed in the notice will not actually revert until 2025, the works will have another 70 years of protection after McCartney’s death. Once the rights have reverted, McCartney could negotiate with his existing publisher or another publisher, or administer the copyrights for himself and hire a rights administrator.