Paul McCartney claims control of Beatles rights from Sony

Paul McCartney has filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York against Sony/ATV, the music publisher of the Japanese company. McCartney, 74, wants a declaratory judgment that recognizes that —as of 2018— he can recover the rights to the songs he signed with John Lennon, alleging that the American Intellectual Property Law admits that an author whose work has been sold a third party can claim it after 56 years of its creation.

Sony/ATV will surely argue that the applicable jurisdiction is the UK, which does not allow such reversal. A few weeks ago, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the British group Duran Duran could not rely on US law; the defendant London publisher belongs precisely to the Sony/ATV group.

This may sound very abstract but it goes directly to the wallet and the ego. While revenue from the sale of recorded music plummets, revenue from the use of that same music in film, TV and advertising is not as affected. There is also the exercise of control: the artist determines how his work is used and, at some point, he can prevent a biopic or documentary that is not respectful enough from coming out.

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In the early eighties, while collaborating with Michael Jackson on The Girl is Mine and Say, Say, Say, McCartney felt paternal and explained to his young friend the intricacies of publishing: "Imagine, all you have to do is collect the proceeds from each song". He also confessed to her that he aspired to recover the Lennon-McCartney repertoire, which had passed to ATV Music, the publishing arm of a private television station. In bad timing: Paul had come to offer 20 million pounds sterling -about 23 million euros- in 1981, but Michael took over ATV paying 24,400,000 -28 million euros- in 1985. A bargain, as would be immediately verified .

Paul McCartney reclama el control de los derechos de los Beatles a Sony

In all fairness, McCartney's actions were weighed down by his sense of loyalty: in order not to appear too greedy, he wanted to buy ATVs in the company of Yoko Ono, John's widow. This one, who already boasted of being a businesswoman, decided that the price was too high and tried to haggle. That attitude allowed Jackson, bold and flush with money after the impact of Thriller, to walk away with the crown jewels, despite more generous offers coming into play.

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The secrets of 'publishing'

When taking stock, it turns out that there are two types of "song workers", as Leonard Cohen said: those who understand the concept of publishing and those who don't. Generally, rookie artists gladly accept leonine contracts that they will later regret. They are surrounded by sharks that even add their name to the credits of a song, taking advantage of the fact that they act as producers (in the case of Phil Spector) or that they published the records (like Don Robey).

After marrying Linda Eastman in 1969, McCartney received music publishing theory classes from his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, a seasoned show business lawyer. Some teachings that he put into practice by acquiring the songbook of his beloved Buddy Holly and other appetizing catalogues, now part of MPL Communications, the holding company that manages his interests.

Although they were photographed together to transmit good vibes, the friendship between Michael and McCartney did not resist such a move. In 1987, along with Ringo Starr and George Harrison, Paul took legal action against the use of the Revolution theme in a campaign for Nike shoes; Yoko stood out, assuring that it was a way to connect the Beatles with a new audience. Still, McCartney saw some kind of truce with Jackson, hoping that, at some point, they could reach an agreement. For the record, Paul and Lennon's heirs continued to receive the percentage established in their contracts.

ATV Music would prove to be Michael's best investment, as he enlarged his song archive with other acquisitions. He was not so cautious in his lifestyle: years of extravagance followed. In 1995 he was forced to merge his publishing house with that of Sony, for an amount equivalent to about 60 million pounds -69 million euros-; the resulting company, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, became 50% owned by each party. In 2006, suffocated by debts, Michael ignored half of his part in exchange for a loan of about 200 million pounds - about 230 million euros.

After Jackson's death in 2009, rumors circulated that a remorseful Michael specified in his will that the rights to Beatles songs should pass to McCartney. None of that: at the beginning of 2016, Sony became the sole owner of the publisher, after paying the heirs 526 million pounds (in dollars, 750 million).

Unfortunately for him, the issue has become an obsession with McCartney. Recovering control over that songbook would mean, apart from the economic advantages, symbolically amending some of the errors that tarnished his career. In the background, Sir Paul's desire for greater recognition of his contribution to The Beatles.