A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does Michael Jackson control the Beatles music library?

October 27, 1995

Dear Cecil:

My understanding is that Michael Jackson slyly acquired the copyrights to the entire Beatles library, much to the dismay of his ex-friend Paul McCartney. I also hear that despite much pleading, he refuses to sell any of them back. Does this mean that he can overdub the masters with his own voice? Are we liable to see copies of "Abbey Road" with five people crossing the street and mysterious falsettoes throughout?

Cecil replies:

Come on. Think of the Sgt. Pepper cover, with all the boys in uniform. Michael Jackson would fit right in.  (Although you'd want the guy missing the glove to be Paul.) Don't worry, no musical travesties are going to happen, or at least they're not going to happen as a result of Jackson owning the Beatles library.

What Michael Jackson bought for $47.5 million in 1985 was the publishing rights to 159 or 251 Beatles songs, depending on who's counting. To maybe oversimplify a complicated business, publishing rights are basically the sheet music rights. When Paul McCartney wanted to print the lyrics to "Eleanor Rigby" and other Beatles classics in the program for his 1989 world tour, he discovered he'd have to pay a fee to Michael Jackson. The owner of the publishing rights (hereinafter the publisher) also gets a royalty when someone plays a Beatles song on a jukebox or the radio or does a cover version of a Fab Four tune. Particularly in the case of elevator music, to which, let's be frank, a lot of Beatles tunes are well suited, this can earn the publisher some serious cash.

But there are a couple things the publisher can't do. The first is to mess with, or license the use of, Beatles recordings. Michael Jackson agreed to license the words and music of "Revolution" to Nike for a 1987 shoe commercial, but he had to persuade Capitol Records, owner of the tune's North American recording rights, to allow use of the actual record. Most likely he'd have to do the same to overdub said record with his own voice, although he might get away with including a snippet in a musical collage, something even John Lennon did that has now become impossible to control.

Another thing the publisher can't do (in the U.S. at least) is prevent somebody from recording a cover version of a song the publisher owns. Usually the would-be cover artist and the publisher work out a deal on royalties. However, if negotiations fail, U.S. law allows the cover artist to make and market the recording anyway provided he pays a stipulated (and fairly stiff) royalty to the publisher.

The point is, being a publisher doesn't give you all that much control over the songs you own; mainly it gives you the right to the profits they earn. You don't even get to keep all of that; typically you have to give 50% to each song's composer(s), one reason not to feel too sorry for Paul McCartney and the estate of John Lennon. Another reason is that McCartney, despite having gotten skunked out of his own songs, contrived to buy the rights to 3,000 others, including the Buddy Holly catalog, and reportedly is worth $600 million. Not that he's happy, of course. Paul's mad at Michael Jackson not merely because he lost control of the Beatles library but also because Jackson won't discuss giving McCartney a higher composer's royalty for the old tunes.

The last reason not to feel sorry for Paul is that if he got skunked it's his own fault. In the 60s, to avoid confiscatory British taxes, he and Lennon turned their publishing rights over to newly-organized Northern Songs, a publicly-held company in which they owned sizable but apparently not controlling blocks of stock. In 1969 music mogul Lew Grade launched a takeover bid for Northern Songs in which he offered seven times the stock's original offering price. Lennon and McCartney, feuding as usual, were unable to organize an effective defense and the company was sold out from under them. This made them even more fabulously wealthy than they already were, since their stock was now worth seven times as much. However, they were still pissed on account of, you know, the principle of the thing. The Teeming Millions can surely sympathize.

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