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The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and just who owns what in the world of music publishing

It seems as though musicians are being busted for copyright infringement a lot more frequently. ‘Blurred lines’ sounds like ‘Got to give it up’, ‘Stay with me’ is a knock-off of ‘I won’t back down’, and ‘Down Under’ rips off ‘Kookaburra’. When did artists become so litigious? Actually, it’s been going on forever.

In many cases of musical misappropriation, artists themselves are remarkably cool about ‘their’ music being used by someone else. Tom Petty was extremely gracious to Sam Smith about the similarities between ‘Stay with me’ and ‘I won’t back down’, saying in a blog post “I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam”:

All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement. The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention… Sam did the right thing and I have thought no more about this. A musical accident no more no less.

Tom has form for not being petty (sorry) when it comes to other people using his music. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2006, he said “a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike”:

“The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for their song ‘Last Nite’], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you’… I don’t believe in lawsuits much.”

Unfortunately, it’s often not the song-writer who is in charge of pursuing lawsuits when songs sound the same, because songs can ‘belong’ to the publishing company rather than the artist who wrote it.

This is justified on a sort of left brain/right brain way of thinking. Basically artists are thought to be creatives who probably don’t have the time, skills or inclination to deal with the business side of the music business, so they get a publisher to ensure they are getting paid for their work.

Oftentimes however, unscrupulous publishers take advantage of the situation. Perhaps the most famous example of this was The Beatles and the debacle that was Northern Songs.

In the very early days of their career, The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, introduced John Lennon and Paul McCartney to music publisher Dick James. Soon James convinced John and Paul that the smartest way for them to make money from their songs was to form a publishing company, and in 1963 Northern Songs was formed.

Within a few short years Beatlemania ensured Northern Songs was worth a fortune, and the company was publicly floated. McCartney and Lennon ended up with a 15 per cent share in the company each, while James and his partner Charles Silver had 37.5 per cent between them as the company’s chairmen.

Ringo Starr and George Harrison ended up with 0.8 per cent each, which led Harrison to pen the song ‘Only a Northern Song’, which was a fairly open statement about how disappointed he was at the raw deal he ended up with – essentially, due to the share structure, he would be receiving less money than John and Paul for songs he had written.

Brian Epstein died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1967, and relations between the band and their chairmen soured. As a result, James and Silver sold their chunk of the company to ATV Music in early 1969 without offering Lennon and McCartney the chance to buy what would have given them a controlling stake.

A battle for control ensued, and The Beatles’ de facto manager, Alan Klein, tried to organise a buy-back of the company later in 1969, but his attempts were scuppered by McCartney’s lawyer (and brother-in-law) John Eastman, who pointed out that Klein had no right to act on the group’s behalf.

Ultimately, Lennon and McCartney sold their share in the company. As a result, they had to pay performance royalties to the company whenever they wanted to play their own songs.

“The annoying thing is I have to pay to play some of my own songs. Each time I want to sing ‘Hey Jude’ I have to pay,” McCartney said in an interview years later.

In truth, McCartney receives some of the money he is paying to play his songs, as he retains his rights as the songwriter, but the money is split between the songwriter – or in this case songwriters, so John Lennon (and now his estate) – and the publishers. So McCartney will probably receive around 25 per cent of the money he himself has paid. Still, it’d be pretty bloody frustrating.

In 1981 McCartney began collaborating with Michael Jackson. Jackson reportedly asked McCartney for business advice, to which Macca responded the way to make money in music was through publishing. This was a lesson he’d learnt the hard way, but one he was now living out, having purchased the publishing rights to a number of other artists’ songs.

Jackson went home and consulted his attorney, John Branca, about what song catalogues he could purchase. After a few smaller-scale purchases, Branca came to Jackson with big news (as the LA Times reported in 1985):

The attorney said casually, “By the way, the ATV catalogue is available.”
Jackson looked puzzled.
Branca added teasingly, “It includes a few things you might be interested in.”
“Like what?” Jackson asked.
“Northern Songs,” Branca replied.
Jackson recognised that name.
“You mean the Northern Songs?”
“Yeah, Mike . . . the Beatles.”
Jackson did a full turn, jumped in the air and shrieked. “But wait,” Branca warned. “Other people are also after the catalogue. It’s going to be a struggle.”
Jackson replied, “I don’t care. I want it… please.”


(And of who could forget Mac and Jack’s other hit, ‘The song is mine’.)

In a funny Aussie link to the story (there’s plenty of quirky Aussie links to The Beatles – Molly Meldrum got the interview with John Lennon when he said the band was breaking up), the reason ATV Music was for sale was that Robert Holmes à Court had acquired Associated Communications Corporation – ATV’s holding company – in 1982, and decided to sell the music publishing company.

Yup, that’s Robert Holmes à Court, father of Peter. Just think, because of the Holmes à Court family, Michael Jackson ended up owning The Beatles, and Russell Crowe and James Packer owning the Rabbitohs.

Thus Michael Jackson came to own The Beatles back-catalogue, making millions per year from the songs his friend Paul McCartney had written. And while McCartney was initially philosophical about Jackson taking ownership – “somebody had to get it, I suppose” – Sir Paul said in an interview with David Letterman that the purchase ultimately ended the two’s friendship:

We got signed when we were 21 or something in a back alley in Liverpool. And the deal, it’s remained the same, even though we made this company the most famous – hugely successful. So I kept thinking, it was time for a raise … I did talk to him about it, but he kind of blanked me on it. He kept saying, ‘That’s just business, Paul.’ You know. So, I thought, ‘Yeah, it is,’ and waited for a reply, but we never kind of got to it … It was no big bust-up. We kind of drifted apart after that.

Interestingly however, Jackson seemed to have maintained a friendly relationship with the other half of the song-writing duo’s family, with John Lennon’s son Sean appearing in Jackson’s 1988 film Moonwalker.

Following Jackson’s death there were rumours he had bequeathed his share of ATV Music back to Sir Paul, in a posthumous attempt at repairing their friendship, however McCartney wrote on his website that this was completely false:

Now the report is that I am devastated to find that he didn’t leave the songs to me. This is completely untrue. I had not thought for one minute that the original report was true and therefore, the report that I’m devastated is also totally false, so don’t believe everything you read folks!

The post-script to this story is that as of 2018, Sir Paul will be able to start recouping his ‘lost’ songs in the United States. Due to the nation’s copyright laws, all songs written before 1978 can be reclaimed by its original author after 56 years, so as of 2018 the songs McCartney wrote in 1962 – including ‘Love me do’ – will be his again, with the rest of the catalogue trickling back to him over the next eight years… At which point he’ll be 84.

Good luck Macca. Do the best you can with your estimated $US660 million ($AU834 million) fortune in the meantime.

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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Comment (2)

    Claire Philips

    Thursday 21 May 2015

    To continue on the Only a Northern Song story – George Harrison sold his (pathetic) share much earlier than the others and created Harrisongs to protect his output (which included all the later classic ones like Something, While My Guitar, Here Comes the Sun etc). So when the ATV deals went through, Harrison’s songs weren’t included in that deal and he kept the rights to his songs. In hindsight, he seemed to be the only one who thought about what would happen after the Beatles…

    Reply

    Ted

    Monday 4 April 2016

    Paul already owns the rights to Love me do and it’s B-side.

    Reply