Will Yesterday Wind its Way Home in 2018?
“The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear”
≈Paul McCartney & John Lennon
It’s been a long and winding road for Paul McCartney to regain his share of copyrights to the treasured catalog of iconic Beatles’ songs he co-authored with John Lennon. Between 1962 and 1973, McCartney transferred publishing rights to songs co-authored with Lennon to various music publishers. McCartney recently sued the music publishing giant, ATV/Sony, to reclaim ownership of copyrights to his share of some of the most famous Beatles’ songs, including, Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let it Be and The Long and Winding Road.
This June, McCartney and ATV/Sony settled their dispute arising under the U.S. Copyright Law of 1976, under which Congress extended the period of copyright protection. In recognition of musicians who, with little bargaining power, contracted their song rights to music publishers (it was unknown how valuable a copyright might become), Congress created a right for musicians to “terminate” pre-1978 contracts after 56 years to make better monetary deals with publishers, or to reclaim ownership of the latter stages of a copyright term. A copyright for a songwriter lasts 70 years following his or her death. Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Prince have used the mere threat of termination to negotiate new deals and better compensation.
While Beatles’ fans likely assume McCartney “owns” the songs he sings in concert and penned with Lennon, that has not been the case for decades. The ownership trail of one of the most valuable catalogs in music history is a strangely twisted story, particularly because its main contributors lost rights to their very own creations.
In 1963, the Beatles officially released their debut album, Please Please Me, and the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, along with British music publisher, Dick James, formed a publishing company called Northern Songs to publish the Beatles’ songs. McCartney and Lennon each owned a 20 percent share. When Northern Songs went public two years later, McCartney and Lennon ended up each with only 15 percent stakes, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr taking negligible shares. Harrison later wrote 1968’s, Only a Northern Song, about his rancor over the diminished cut he received in the deal.
As relations between the Beatles and James deteriorated, in 1969, James sold his stake in Northern Songs to the U.S. music publisher, ATV Music. Despite McCartney and Lennon attempting a counter bid, ATV gained majority control of the Beatles’ catalog, leaving the two songwriters without a say in publishing their own songs.
In 1985, counseled by McCartney himself that big money was tied to music publishing rights, Michael Jackson purchased ATV Music and the rights to at least 250 Beatles’ songs out from under McCartney. Facing financial troubles, Jackson sold half of ATV to Sony in 1990, creating ATV/Sony. By 2006, Jackson ceded another 25 percent of the company to Sony. After Jackson’s death three years later, Sony swallowed up the rest of Jackson’s shares for $750 million, and now owns 100 percent of the Beatles’ catalog, with an estimated worth of $1 billion.
While terms of the legal settlement between McCartney and ATV/Sony are confidential, ownership of the earliest Beatles’ songs may revert to McCartney beginning in 2018, with later songs transferring back in 2026. Copyright Law permitted John Lennon’s heirs to recapture his share of the Beatles’ catalog after Lennon died in 1980. In 2009, Sony cut a deal with Yoko Ono to retain copyright ownership of Lennon’s share for the duration of the Lennon copyright period, through 2050.
While the copyright ownership of the Beatles’ songs is a strange and twisted trail, one by one McCartney’s songs may make the long and winding road back to his door.