On 18th January 2017, Sir Paul McCartney filed a claim in the US against Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC ('Sony') for a declaratory judgement.

If successful it will clear the way for him to reclaim his US copyright in a number of songs which he wrote or co-wrote with John Lennon.

Why did he do this?

This case has arisen from the provisions of the US Copyright Act 1976 (the Act) which gives artists the right to reclaim ownership of the copyright in works assigned by them prior to 1978.

The Act states that an artist may terminate all agreements for the grant, licence or transfer of US copyright entered into prior to 1978 by serving notice upon the assignee or licensee 56 to 61 years after the date on which the copyright was originally secured.

Therefore, Mr McCartney should be able to reclaim ownership of his US copyright in the Beatles songs in question as they were written between 1962 and 1971. The oldest songs in the Sony portfolio could be eligible for this process in 2018.

In this case, Mr McCartney is asking the court to declare that in invoking the provisions of the Act and reclaiming the copyright in the Beatles songs, he will not be in breach of the terms of his publishing agreement.

Will he be successful?

Many big names in the music industry have successfully taken back ownership of their rights in the US by relying on this statutory provision.

However, recently, the band Duran Duran sought to rely on the Act in a claim bought against Sony at the High Court of Justice in England. The band wanted to reclaim rights in thirty seven of their songs. The claim failed, broadly due to a lack of evidence that the Act would override the terms of their publishing agreement with Sony which was governed by English law.

It appears that Paul McCartney is seeking a declaratory judgement from the US court to clarify the position that his publishing rights will revert to him pursuant to the provisions of the Act and dispel any ambiguity.

What does this mean for British artists and publishers?

This case is a reminder that:

  1. for publishing companies, it's essential that the publishing agreement is sufficiently detailed and properly drafted to deal with the effect of various copyright laws around the world;
  2. for artists and bands, it's important that they receive specialist legal advice on the terms of their publishing agreements and their long term implications; and
  3. the recent Duran Duran v Sony case arguably confuses the position for British songwriters as it creates a situation where a US court could decide that US rights revert to the artist under the provisions of the Act, but an English court could find that this reversion constituted a breach of the publishing agreement, giving rise to a claim for damages for breach of contract against the artist.