McCartney files against Sony/ATV to reclaim song copyrights

February 2017

Music Publishing


Sir Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, has filed a lawsuit against Sony/ ATV in the federal court in New York. 
The lawsuit is aimed at reclaiming the copyright in 267 of the songs that he wrote with John Lennon throughout the 1960s when they were members of the Beatles. The first steps to reclaim the copyrights were taken back in 2008 when McCartney first filed to reclaim the rights in the song ‘Love Me Do’. Since then McCartney has upped the pace; in 2010 he filed for the reversion of copyright in 40 songs in a single claim. As of today, the total number stands at 267 songs this includes hits such as “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need Is Love”.  Not surprisingly Sony/ ATV have remained silent as to the transfer of the copyright back to McCartney.
The lawsuit is based upon the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, specifically the reversion element found within. This allows songwriters that have assigned their works to a third party to reclaim the copyrights following a 56 year period for tracks written before 1978.
Reclaiming the copyrights is not as easy as simply taking them back. First, McCartney needs to put Sony/ ATV on notice that he is intending to claim back the rights to the songs. Following this, Sony/ ATV would need to confirm that once the legal rights have expired under the 1976 Act they will transfer the rights back to the songwriter; the latter is something that has not yet been done.
A spokesperson for McCartney has explained that: “Paul McCartney has today filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York against Sony/ ATV to confirm his ownership in his US reversionary copyrights, which are granted to him by US copyright law, in the songs he wrote with John Lennon and recorded with The Beatles. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York and bears the case no. 17cv363.”
Sony/ ATV have labelled the lawsuit as “unnecessary and premature” in a statement. 

McCartney has once already tried to reclaim the publishing rights to the songs, albeit in different circumstances. In 1985 he was famously out-bid by Michael Jackson who paid a staggering $47.5 million to obtain the publishing rights to the songs that were included as part of a treasure trove of 4,000 tracks. 
McCartney isn’t the first songwriter to attempt to use the copyright reversion provision in US law to reclaim the copyright in self-written songs, and I am sure he will not be the last. This isn’t new for Sony/ ATV either; in December Duran Duran attempted to regain the rights to their first three albums that were owned by EMI Music, now a subsidiary of Sony/ ATV. However, this claim was brought in a English Court, unlike McCartney’s case, as the bands contract was written under the English jurisdiction. On the application of English law, where the US copyright reversion is not recognised, Arnold J found (‘not without hesitation’) that the rights could not be reclaimed by Duran Duran. It would have been a breach of agreement to allow for the use of US reversion rights in conjunction with the English contract. Ultimately this meant that it was bad news for Duran Duran, the songs remain under the control of Sony/ ATV. 
In the present case with McCartney I expect a better outcome for the songwriter, in that McCartney will recover the rights to the songs that are due to expire. The key fact is the difference in jurisdiction and their differentiating approach to copyright law. 
By Samuel O’Toole LLB (Hons), trainee solicitor, at Lawdit Music

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