NEW YORK (NYTimes) - In the latest twist in a legal issue that has galvanised musicians, Paul McCartney filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday (Jan 18) against music publisher Sony/ATV over ownership of some of the Beatles' most famous songs.
McCartney's suit is over what is known as copyright termination: the right of authors - or any creators - to reclaim ownership of their works from publishers after a specific length of time has passed. It was part of the 1976 copyright act and in recent years has become a potent force in the music industry as performers and songwriters have used the law to regain control of their work.
In McCartney's suit, filed in United States District Court in Manhattan, lawyers for the singer detailed the steps they have taken over the past nine years to reclaim McCartney's piece of the copyrights in dozens of Beatles songs he wrote with John Lennon, including Love Me Do, I Want To Hold Your Hand and All You Need Is Love. That process involved filing numerous legal notices, which, the suit says, should be enough to guarantee that Sony/ATV would return the rights to McCartney, starting in October 2018.
But the suit contends that late last year, after the band Duran Duran lost a copyright suit in Britain, executives at Sony/ATV began to suggest to McCartney's lawyers that the rule might not apply to his songs. In the Duran Duran case, a judge ruled that the band's original contract was governed by British law, which barred it from reclaiming rights in the US. Under US law, this power cannot be waived by contract.
As McCartney's suit notes, he and Lennon signed a series of publishing contracts in Britain beginning in 1962. The suit contends that in a series of remarks and emails to McCartney's lawyers, Sony/ATV executives alluded to the Duran Duran case and refused to confirm that he could reclaim his rights.
The suit asks for a declarative judgment that McCartney would not be violating any contract by exercising his termination rights.
In a statement, Sony/ATV said that it had "the highest respect for Sir Paul McCartney" and that it worked closely with McCartney and the Lennon estate. But the company added: "We are disappointed that they have filed this lawsuit, which we believe is both unnecessary and premature."
For many musicians, especially those who had hits decades ago, copyright termination has become a powerful means to reclaim their work and to gain financial leverage with the record companies and music publishers that represent them. When Prince's classic albums were nearing the point at which he could reclaim them, he struck a lucrative new deal with his label, Warner Bros., to let the company continue to release his music.
And in the music industry, there is no more valuable catalogue than the songs of the Beatles. Michael Jackson purchased the rights to those songs in 1985, and 10 years later he formed Sony/ATV as a joint venture with Sony. Last year, Sony bought out the share of Jackson's estate for US$750 million.
In a note referring to a standard legal threshold, McCartney's lawsuit includes a major understatement. "The copyright interests at issue in this case," the suit says, "are worth well in excess of" US$75,000.