Paul McCartney Goes to Court to Reclaim Beatles Copyrights

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The BeatlesSir Paul McCartney is taking steps to reclaim ownership of the copyrights to Beatles songs that were signed away decades ago.

As Reuters reports, McCartney sued the music publishing division of Sony Corp. in federal court. The case involves copyrights for 267 Beatles songs written between 1962 and 1970, including iconic tunes like “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” and “Let It Be.” 

The songs at issue were authored by McCartney and the late John Lennon.

The late pop star Michael Jackson acquired the song rights in 1985, outbidding McCartney by paying $47.5 million for Beatles songs and others in a collection of about 4,000 songs.

Jackson’s estate sold the song rights after his death in 2009.

Termination of Transfers

The case results from changes to US copyright law that occurred in 1976 when the term of copyright protection was expanded.

Under 17 U.S. Code § 304,  the “Termination of Transfers and Licenses” clause provides:

In the case of any copyright subsisting in either its first or renewal term on January 1, 1978, other than a copyright in a work made for hire, the exclusive or nonexclusive grant of a transfer or license of the renewal copyright or any right under it…

And:

Termination of the grant may be effected at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of fifty-six years from the date copyright was originally secured.

In short, the author or creator of a copyrighted work (or that person’s heirs) who assigned their copyrights can reclaim those rights after 56 years.

McCartney already served notice on Sony that he intends to exercise his rights.

As of the 1976 expansion of the copyright term, US law now protects copyrights during the life of the author and for 70 years after the author’s death.

As Forbes notes,

This means that if the court doesn’t let him down, beginning in 2018 and continuing up to 2031 (but most likely concluding in 2026…), McCartney will slowly regain his U.S. copyright ownership interests in all of the songs he authored and co-authored for The Beatles between 1962 and 1970.

Superman and Duran Duran

As Forbes also reports, others — including the heirs of one of the co-creators of Superman — have also taken advantage of their opportunity to reclaim copyrights.

McCartney is bringing his lawsuit because Sony opposed another musician’s attempt to reclaim rights.

As his complaint states,

When members of the band Duran Duran attempted to exercise their rights to terminate transfers made in the early 1980s to their publisher under U.S. copyright law, the  publisher, Sony/ATV subsidiary Gloucester Place Music, sued the band members for breach of contract in the United Kingdom. 

A court in the UK ruled that the English law of contracts trumped American copyright law in the Duran Duran case.

McCartney is trying to get a declaratory judgement preempting such a result in his case.

If he’s successful, he will recover his song rights starting in October of 2018.


Photo Credit: Paul Mccartney The Beatles John Lennon.

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