After missing two chances to control the compositions he co-authored while in The Beatles — once in 1969 when he and John Lennon were outbid and again to Michael Jackson, in a duplicitous move by the King of Pop, in the ’80s — Paul McCartney is not taking any chances.
First, the fine print. In the U.S., authors are allowed to regain copyrights they had previously assigned to other parties, such as a music publishing company, after 56 years, a feature of stateside copyright law designed to give late-in-life artists and their families a financial silver lining (not that McCartney needs it). McCartney is extremely keen, after the previously mentioned burns he sustained, to regain control of his Beatles work — so much so that he filed termination notices, the legal mechanism for him to regain his copyrights, on The Beatles’ “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You,” about 10 years ahead of schedule. (They turn 56 years old in October, 2018.)
Despite that due diligence, McCartney is understandably skittish given his track record of failure in this particular area of his business. The pop genius filed suit, in fact, this past January against Sony/ATV — the world’s largest music publisher, which controls much of the Lennon/McCartney songbook — based essentially on a conversation, shared in court documents, in late 2016 during a Billy Joel concert between his lawyer and Sony/ATV chairman and CEO Martin Bandier. The talk seemed to indicate that McCartney’s reclamations, which should be protected by U.S. law, may not go as smoothly as he’d hoped.
The pair’s chat focused on a recent U.K. court case in which Sony/ATV successfully prevented members of Duran Duran from regaining control of hit songs they’d signed away to publishers in the ’80s, despite filing notices much as McCartney has. The discussion alarmed McCartney enough that he brought suit against the publishing giant to ensure it wasn’t planning on using the same legal strategy against him next year. The company urged calm.
In both an email thread before McCartney sued and in subsequent court documents, Sony/ATV has maintained that it does not plan to challenge the notices McCartney filed to get back his landmark Beatles compositions. Bandier emailed McCartney’s lawyer that “the previously served notices of termination … constitute an effective exercise … and will become effective on the dates stated in the notices.” Sony/ATV also wrote in a court memo Monday (Mar. 13) that it “has never stated that it intends to assert” a claim similar to the one in the Duran Duran case.
Here’s the rub, though: The purpose of Sony/ATV’s filing on Mar. 13 was to claim that McCartney’s suit is premature — or “unripe” — since the Duran Duran case in the U.K. in ongoing (it is currently awaiting appeal). Because of this, the publisher wants to have McCartney’s suit against the company dismissed without prejudice (“without” allows McCartney to bring his case again). That the company is looking to dismiss McCartney’s case until Duran Duran’s is finished could, however, is an ominous sign — one that McCartney and his lawyers picked up on, clearly.
Sony/ATV maintains it is simply protecting itself by not signing away rights before they’re fully determined via the Duran Duran case — rights it could, ostensibly, use to challenge McCartney’s termination claims in the U.K. Which, again, it says it does not plan on doing.
McCartney, wisely given his past copyright failures, isn’t waiting around to find out whether or not Sony/ATV is as benevolent as it claims.