McCartney Won’t ‘Let It Be,’ Sues Sony to Get Back Song Rights

  • McCartney claims he’ll recover copyrights beginning in 2018
  • Former Beatle seeks control over ‘Love Me Do,’ ‘Let it Be’

Do you want to know a secret? A quirk in U.S. copyright law says Paul McCartney may be able to get the rights to one of his songs back as early as next year, with others following. But Sony Corp. appears to be standing in the way.

The former Beatle who, with John Lennon, wrote songs including “Love Me Do,” is relying on a provision in the law that gave authors who sold their rights before 1978 the option to reclaim them after 56 years -- the maximum length of copyrights before that time.

Paul McCartney

Photographer: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Sony, buoyed by a court victory in the U.K. where it defeated an attempt by the band Duran Duran to reclaim the rights to its songs, isn’t willing to give in to McCartney, according to a lawsuit the pop legend filed Wednesday in New York.

Around the time of the U.K. ruling, Sony executives indicated to McCartney’s representatives that they would “try to use the decision” against him, he said in the lawsuit.

McCartney may have sung that he doesn’t care too much for money, but the dispute with Sony involves more than 250 songs from the 1960s and 1970s, including some of the Beatles’ greatest hits such as “Hey Jude,” “Let it Be” and “Yesterday.” Those songs still generate royalties with regular play on classic rock radio stations, advertisements and films.

Industry Watching

The music industry will be watching the lawsuit carefully because, if McCartney wins, it could open up the flood gates to other artists who transferred their copyrights in the 1960s to reclaim their songs, said Jeffrey Kobulnick, an intellectual property lawyer with Brutzkus Gubner Rozansky Seror Weber LLP in Woodland Hills, California.

"We’re talking about a lot of works that are very valuable," Kobulnick said.

Should McCartney prevail, he’ll be able to make much more lucrative deals to license and reproduce his songs, including for his own performances of them, Kobulnick said.

"This could be a strategic move by Paul to get final resolution," Kobulnick said. "He’s not getting any younger and may be anxious to get the issue resolved."

McCartney, 74, claims U.S. copyright law gives him the right, beginning in 2018, to recover control of the songs that Sony bought last year from the estate of the late pop star Michael Jackson.

In the New York lawsuit McCartney asked for a court order making it clear he can terminate earlier sales of his copyrights without fear of being sued for breaking publishing contracts.

U.S. Copyrights

McCartney can only reclaim his U.S. copyrights, which typically amount to about half of the worldwide rights, said Lisa Alter, a copyright lawyer with Alter, Kendrick & Baron LLP in New York.

Very few lawsuits are brought over termination notices because the law is very clear that artists can reclaim their copyright, according to Alter.

"It’s become an accepted part of the music business," Alter said.

Ownership of the Beatles catalog has taken a long and winding road.

McCartney wrote most of the songs with Lennon, who was murdered in New York in 1980. Other songs were written by McCartney alone or with his other band mates, Ringo Starr and the late George Harrison. Sony last year agreed to pay $750 million to buy out Jackson’s stake in a catalog of songs by the Beatles and other artists, including the works McCartney is suing to control.

‘Let it Be’

Sir Paul might be in line to recover the rights to "Love Me Do" in October 2018. Later hits, including "Let it Be," "The Long and Winding Road," and "Maybe I’m Amazed," wouldn’t return to McCartney’s control until 2026.

“Sony/ATV has the highest respect for Sir Paul McCartney with whom we have enjoyed a long and mutually rewarding relationship with respect to the treasured Lennon & McCartney song catalog," the company said in an e-mailed statement. "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. We are disappointed that they have filed this lawsuit which we believe is both unnecessary and premature."

Duran Duran, which had hits in the 1980s with "Rio" and "Hungry Like the Wolf," tried unsuccessfully to reclaim copyrights under a different but similar provision of U.S. copyright law. The High Court of England and Wales last year ruled that band members would be in violation of their U.K. music publishing contracts if they terminated the publishers’ rights.

"It’s a very Brexit move," William Hochberg, a music industry lawyer with Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP, said of the U.K. decision. "The U.K. court put blinders on and only looked at its own laws."

"Music publishing isn’t thriving and the Beatles are the jewel in the crown of Sony’s catalog," Hochberg said. "But it’s a public relations nightmare and they may not want to rely on a questionable Duran Duran decision."

McCartney’s legal team includes New York entertainment lawyer John Eastman, a longtime representative who was the brother of the singer’s late wife Linda McCartney.

The case is McCartney v. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, 17-cv-00363, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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