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Paul McCartney goes legal over the US reversion right

By | Published on Thursday 19 January 2017

Paul McCartney

Ah, the US reversion right. That’s fun isn’t it? Paul McCartney has sued Sony/ATV fearing that it might as yet seek to block his reversion right by equating ‘Hey Jude’ to ‘Girls On Film’. Because if you listen carefully, they are basically the same song.

So, as every copyright fan knows, in 1978 US Congress introduced a ‘reversion’ or ‘termination’ right into the country’s copyright law, which says that songwriters who assign the rights in their songs to another entity have a one-time opportunity to terminate that assignment and claim back their intellectual property.

This right kicks in at 35 years, though the rules are slightly different for songs assigned before 1978, which means the reversion right party only really cranked into action a few years back. That in turn means that some of the technicalities surrounding the whole termination process are still being ironed out.

One of the big fat technicalities is how the reversion right applies for songwriters who assigned their rights to a music publisher through a deal done outside the US, via a contract that is ultimately under the jurisdiction of a non-American court. Does the reversion right still apply, in that the writer has the right to claim back their IP within the US, even if the publisher then retains the rights everywhere else in the world?

That was the consensus (hope?) among British songwriters old enough for the reversion right to be kicking in. But when Duran Duran filed the paperwork required to terminate the US part of the publishing deal around their early works, the publisher – now a Sony/ATV subsidiary – said “no way Jose, read your contract, brush up on your English contract law, those songs are ours until the day you die, suckers”. I mean, I’m paraphrasing slightly. But only slightly.

When Duran Duran took the matter to court last year, Sony/ATV won. At the time the band’s Nick Rhodes told reporters: “This gives wealthy publishing companies carte blanche to take advantage of the songwriters who built their fortune over many years, and strips songwriters of their right to rebalance this reward. If left untested, this judgment sets a very bad precedent for all songwriters of our era”.

Now, Paul McCartney has been busy of late filing termination notices against Sony/ATV in relation to the slightly famous Lennon/McCartney catalogue, so Rhodes’ remarks got him wondering about the Duran Duran ruling. “Yeah, it does set a bit of a bad precedent for all songwriters of our era doesn’t it?” he pondered. “But, erm, hey, guys, does it set a bad precedent for one songwriter in particular?”

Because, see, while Sony/ATV hasn’t said it’s opposing McCartney’s bid to reclaim the American rights in his Beatles songs, nor has it confirmed that it’s not. Hence the filing this week in the New York courts. “Rather than provide clear assurances to Paul McCartney that defendants will not challenge his exercise of his termination rights, defendants are clearly reserving their rights pending the final outcome of the Duran Duran litigation in the UK”, says the lawsuit.

Sony/ATV, which has already reached a deal with the Lennon estate over its share of these songs, obviously doesn’t want a big bust up in the courts with McCartney, for PR reasons as much as because of any precedents that legal dispute could set. Talks between the two parties, including Sony/ATV boss man Marty Bandier, have seemingly been ongoing for a while, though the ruling in the Duran Duran case turned things a bit frosty.

If the dispute does actually go before a judge, it would be a very interesting case, in that it would test the rights of non-US songwriters in America under US copyright law rather than under English contract law. If the courts in New York and London ultimately disagree on those writer’s rights, well that would be fun.

Responding to McCartney’s legal filing yesterday, Sony/ATV said in a statement: “Fuck Paul McCartney. Fuck The Beatles. Fuck Wings. Fuck The Fireman. Fuck The Frog Chorus. Fuck loving me do. Fuck tickets to ride. Fuck letting it be. Fuck helping your friends. Fuck days in the life. Fuck Lady Madonna. Fuck Eleanor Rigby. Fuck Penny Lane. Fuck Michelle. Fuck yesterday. They can all fuck off”.

Oh, no, hang on, my bad, that’s not Sony/ATV’s statement, I mixed up my papers. Responding to McCartney’s legal filing yesterday, Sony/ATV said in a statement: “Sony/ATV has the highest respect for Sir Paul McCartney with whom we have enjoyed a long and mutually rewarding relationship with respect to the treasured Lennon & McCartney song catalogue”.

The statement then added: “We have collaborated closely with both Sir Paul and the late John Lennon’s estate for decades to protect, preserve and promote the catalogue’s long-term value. We are disappointed that they have filed this lawsuit which we believe is both unnecessary and premature”.

Yeah, I preferred the other response.