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It has been said that when Paul McCartney collaborated with Michael Jackson in 1983 for the song "Say Say Say", which would form one of the songs of the former Beatle's album Pipes of Peace, he offered the young Jackson some financial advice - to invest his wealth in music publishing. It would hence be ironic that McCartney's advice would come back to haunt him when, in 1985, Jackson purchased the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog for the princely sum of forty-seven million pounds, and in the process even outbidded McCartney himself. Imagine losing out in the process of buying up the rights to your own work! How Sir Paul must have felt!
McCartney's advice made for good business sense if you are in the music industry. Whenever a piece of copyrighted music is used for a commercial purpose, such as being played on the radio, or to feature in a commercial or in a movie, the party using the copyrighted recording has to pay a licensing fee to the record label that was responsible for issuing the recording, and the latter in turn would pay a portion of the royalties to the performer. Additionally, a separate royalty would be due to the song writer. (And if you happened to be the performer and songwriter, then you're quids in!) But just as the performer has a record label to manage the collections on his behalf, music publishing companies tend to manage the collection of royalties on the behalf of songwriters in exchange for a cut of say, 50%, and also pledge to promote the commercial use of the songs.
McCartney and John Lennon, who had been primarily responsible for the songs, added an additional layer of complexity to the intricate relationships of performer, record label, songwriter and music publishing company. As songwriters, they signed a publishing agreement with a company with which they had also had a stake in. The company, called Northern Songs, had been formed in 1964 to take advantage of the growing success of Beatles works. Hence, not only did the duo have a share of the songs as song writers, and as performers, but also by virtue of having shares in the company, they clawed back even more of the royalties from the music publishing frontier. But the acquisition of Northern Songs in 1969 by the British company ATV led Lennon and McCartney to pull out of their contract and to sell off their shares in Northern Songs. And fifteen years later, as ATV looked to sell its entire publishing catalog, Paul McCartney got out his wallet in anticipation and got gazumped by Jackson.
The purchase of the catalog as an investment allowed Jackson to remain financially solvent in the years after, and also served as collateral for large loans that had been taken out to fund an extravagant lifestyle. And why did Jackson plan a comeback "This Is It" tour in 2009? It was because his lifestyle had caught up with him, and even the music publishing rights of the entire Beatles catalog, an estimated $750 million which he had surrendered to Sony, one of his major creditors, was not enough to bail him out financially.
The US Copyright Right Act of 1976 states that songwriters could reclaim copyright from publishers 35 years after they gave them away in the case of songs published after 1978. For songs before that, the claim could be facilitated after 56 years.
The first single of the Beatles catalog, Love Me Do, was written in 1962 and would have met the timeframe for claim of copyright. Last year, it was reported that McCartney and Sony had reached a confidential agreement over the Beatles back catalog.
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