Paul McCartney sues Sony over rights to Beatles songs

Sir Paul McCartney has begun a lawsuit in a New York federal court against Sony/ATV, seeking to ensure he regains the legal rights to a number of the Beatles’ songs, including Ticket to Ride and Let It Be. The legal action appears to be an attempt to avoid what happened to Duran Duran who, as zoom-in brief reported in December, lost an English lawsuit over rights to some of their biggest hits. Duran Duran had tried to regain the rights to their songs using the same US statute that Sir Paul is relying upon.

The 1976 US Copyright Act allows artists to regain control of copyright that they have assigned to others (for example record labels) by serving a termination notice. The Act provides that: ‘[t]ermination of the grant may be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary.’ Meaning that any contractual agreement is overridden by the notice.

However, when Duran Duran sought to rely on termination notices, EMI (also ultimately owned by Sony) took action in the English High Court, as Duran Duran had signed a contract governed by English law. That court found that under English law the contract took precedence and EMI retained the rights.

By filing in New York, Sir Paul is seeking to have the case tried under US law. The rights in the Beatles’ back catalogue were assigned by Lennon and McCartney to companies, and later a large share of the rights were famously bought by the late singer and entertainer, Michael Jackson. Since his death, Jackson’s share has been sold to Sony/ATV (who already held some rights).

Sir Paul began serving termination notices in 2008, so the first will take effect in 2018. In the period after 2008, according to the lawsuit, Sony/ATV gave no indication that they opposed his rights, but after the Duran Duran decision indicated that they may seek to use it against Sir Paul. Sir Paul’s lawyers sought confirmation that Sony/ATV would not take legal action against him over the termination notices, but they refused to provide this: hence the legal action.

Sony/ATV have accepted that the termination notices are valid, so Sir Paul seeks a declaratory judgment that exercise of his termination rights is not a breach of contract, and that the contracts are unlawful or unenforceable to the extent that they conflict with his termination rights.

Sony/ATV have expressed their respect for McCartney, but said the filing of the lawsuit is unnecessary and premature.