Paul McCartney recently filed suit in United States District Court, to reclaim ownership rights of some of the Beatles’ most famous early songs. The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that Mr. McCartney is entitled to reclaim copyright interest in several early songs under the termination provisions of the Copyright Act. Under this provision of the Copyright Act, authors who assigned their copyright interests to artistic works before a 1978 revision of the law, are allowed to reclaim the rights after 56 years have passed. Mr. McCartney has been serving advance notice of his intent to reclaim the rights as required by law.
Unlike most countries, the United States copyright law provides musicians and songwriters an opportunity to regain ownership of works that they transferred to outside entities, such as record labels and music publishers after a certain period of time. For many musicians, especially those who had hits decades ago, copyright termination has become a powerful way to regain the rights in their works and to gain financial leverage with their record companies and music publishers.
Michael Jackson purchased the rights to various Beatles songs in 1985 and later formed Sony/ATV as a joint venture with Sony. Last year, Sony bought out the share of Mr. Jackson’s estate for $750 million.
One potential issue in the case is a recent ruling by a British court that found the band Duran Duran could not reclaim rights to its songs because the band’s original publishing agreements were subject to English law. Mr. McCartney’s suit notes, he and John Lennon signed a series of publishing contracts in Britain beginning in 1962, assigning his ownership rights to some of the popular early Beatles songs. As such, Sony/ATV have begun to suggest that the copyright rule may not apply to Mr. McCartney’s songs.