Rights My Guitar Gently Weeps – Recovering Ownership of the Beatles Catalogue

The naivety of financial arrangements in the 1960s led to the mercurial nature of the stars of the 1970s and 1980s and on to the business moguls we now hear of every day. However, there’s a chance that the Beatles back catalogue may soon, at least partially, return to one of the Fab Four. Could that be an action every bit as influential as signing those weighted contracts of the early 1960s?

It’s been a momentous few months for Beatles fans. On the release front, a recording of a tribute concert in George Harrison’s honour then the monumental high definition releases of the Fab Four’s 1+ album replete with remastered videos in several formats surfacing just before Christmas… And then there was the sad news announced by Ringo in the early hours of March 9 that legendary ‘fifth Beatle’ George Martin had passed away.

This week though, came less a reminder that the group’s gigantic legacy continues, of which that the above comprises, but that the brand still has the power to trigger changes and forge a path. Yes, it’s been revealed that December saw Sir Paul McCartney taking a big step on the long road to reclaiming the rights to his own back catalogue with the Fab Four.

Initially seeking rights to 32 songs that cross, albeit nowhere near exhaustively, the entire eight-odd year career (and beyond) of the Beatles, each one is co-credited to McCartney and the late John Lennon. That means that should McCartney’s claim succeed, current owners of Sony/ATV Music Publishing would retain co-ownership having apparently previously agreed a rights deal with Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono in 2009.

It seems quite an extraordinary situation, and one that’s arisen both from the intricacies of the US Copyright Act of 1976 as well as a catalogue of poor decisions dating back to before Beatlemania.

28 Years a Piece

That Copyright Act allows still living artists the ability to apply to regain the rights to their material 56 years after a work’s initial publication. That’s broken down into two 28 year terms, as under one of the oddities that seems entirely appropriate with this type of law an estate of a deceased artist can apply for those same rights after that initial 28 year term. The Beatle’s first single Love Me Do was first released in the UK in October 1962, meaning some versions slipped into the public domain in the UK during 2013, but in the USA the immense catalogue starts to become available from 2018.

Mc McCartney filed in December 2015, a not rushed but measured response to the window allowed of between two and 10 years prior to that 56 year deadline. Referring to this as a long and winding road multiple times is no exaggeration.

1962’s Love Me Do started many a ripple, not least the creation of Northern Songs which split rights to that and the incredible Beatles songs that were to come in two. One 50% share split three ways between manager Brian Epstein and chief songwriters Lennon and McCartney. The other half was shared between publisher Dick James and his business partner Charles Silver. One small blessing was that George Martin, ever noble it seems, turned down the chance of a share as he saw a level of ownership as a conflict.

Beyond Taxman

Although George Harrison would later become known as the pointedly financially minded of the four, penning the likes of Only a Northern Song about his junior song writing status in that eponymous company and Taxman about Labour’s progressive tax in the mid-1960s, It soon became clear McCartney and Lennon early in the 1960s that they had a rum deal. The later birth of Apple Corps and the various tactics of the head of that business Allen Klein, who in 1969 failed in his bid to reclaim the James stake that had earlier moved onto ATV, would fall away into litigation by the 1970s. The 1980s found McCartney and Michael Jackson’s brewing friendship turn cold when the young pop starlet with a great deal of money to invest picked up an idea from the Liverpudlian. And the King of Pop promptly purchased the Beatles stock for a reported $47.5 million. The intervening 30 years of Jackson’s rights options deserve their own long and winding road, and a branch off to circle a Northern Town of their own, before heading back to the main highway of 2016.

When he’s 76?

Ostensibly, there’s no way that all Lennon-McCartney songs, even the 32 in this first motion, can fully fall to McCartney by the 2018 date. However, having reversed the credits, rerecorded, mixed and generated new Beatles material over recent years, it represents his biggest chance to make a financial recovery after watching the likes of Duran Duran, U2 and Andrew Lloyd Webber generate huge wealth from their talent in the years since Northern Songs. Lloyd Webber’s a particularly interesting comparison as within the 25,000 copyrights to other people’s songs that McCartney supposedly owns features many theatrical music scores. It’s worth noting the legacy of David Bowie as well, an artist who recently bequeathed a considerable fortunate, a great deal of which arose from his bold and excellent use of bonds leveraged his back catalogue royalties during the 1990s.

And in the year we have lost Bowie, Lemmy, Martin and a number of great contributors to the musical fabric of Britain and America, it’s worth remembering the many stars of early Rock n’ Roll still trading on their guitars and Keyboards. Longevity is not often thought of in connection with 1950s artists, many having fading in the advent of the Beatles the following decade while others who stand tall among their lost add their own irony. Buddy Holly’s complete back catalogue is owned by Paul McCartney.

Money can buy me rarities

Fortunately, even the longevity of those who come from the annals of Rock can is far longer than standard public domain law suggests, and that has already had an impact. In 2011 the EU ratified legislation that took copyright from 50 to 70 years, fondly referred to as Cliff’s Law. Amid the increasing challenge to copyright brought by the digital revolution, Sir Cliff’s Law may just as easily have taken its name from a fellow prominent campaigner Sir Paul.

So, it seems, this is another chance of a victory in McCartney’s long battle to cancel out some bad decisions and right some wrongs. And who would have thought this news would come to light in the same week that a rare Beatles pressing has sold in auction for £77,000. Recorded in early 1962, the double-sided Hello Little Girl and Til there was you was pressed by Epstein and was used to convince George Martin to produce the band, soon yielding Love Me Do. How simple those times seem now.

And at a snip of the undeclared earnings that the Beatles back catalogue can still generate, what a bargain that was, even at ten times the auction estimate.