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Paul McCartney settles with Sony/ATV in reversion right dispute

By | Published on Friday 30 June 2017

Paul McCartney

Don’t be expecting any courtroom fun in the dispute between Paul McCartney and Sony/ATV over the all important reversion right under American copyright law. They’ve only gone and settled. Bastards. Sensible bastards. But bastards all the same.

As much previously reported, under US copyright law a songwriter who assigns their rights to a music publisher has the statutory right to terminate that assignment agreement after 35 years, or 56 years for copyrights assigned before the reversion or termination right was introduced in the late 1970s. This right only really came into effect in recent years, and everyone is still working out exactly how it works.

One big fat technicality is what happens with non-US songwriters who – say – assigned their rights to a British publisher under English law. Can those writers still reclaim the US rights in their songs? Or, more specifically, can those non-US publishing contracts interfere with the statutory right under American law, or make it impractical to employ? And if so, what specific contract terms are able to do the interfering?

As also previously reported, the test case on all this from an English law perspective is Duran Duran’s legal battle with Gloucester Place Music, which is now a Sony/ATV subsidiary. In that case the publisher argues that, under its original contract with the band, they can’t exercise their termination right. Sony/ATV won at first instance, but the case is still going through the motions with appeal pending.

It was because of Sony/ATV’s battle with Duran Duran that Paul McCartney – who has been busy preparing to reclaim the US rights in his half of the Lennon/McCartney catalogue off the major – filed his own legal action.

The publisher hadn’t actually said that it intended to interfere in his exercising of the termination right, but nor would it confirm that it wouldn’t. It seemed that Sony/ATV was possibly playing for time, pending the outcome of the Duran Duran litigation.

Seeking more timely confirmation that the publisher wouldn’t throw any spanners in the works as he seeks to reclaim his song rights, McCartney¬†went to court¬†in the US earlier this year. Sony/ATV tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that it would be wrong for the American courts to rule on this matter while the English courts were still considering the dispute with Duran Duran.

Copyright geeks were looking forward to seeing this particular reversion rights question get discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, pondering on what might happen if the US and UK courts reached different conclusions. But the McCartney dispute is now settled.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, McCartney’s lawyer Michael Jacobs said in a letter to the court yesterday: “The parties have resolved this matter by entering into a confidential settlement agreement and jointly request that the court enter the enclosed proposed order dismissing the above-referenced action without prejudice”.

Who doesn’t like a good old fashioned ‘confidential settlement agreement’ when an important legal precedent is required that will affect less affluent veteran songwriters as well as the superstars.

Though, that said, whether or not an English publishing contract can indeed interfere in any one songwriter’s US reversion rights may depend on the very specific wording of that contract, so it’s possible we were never going to get an all embracing precedent from any of these lawsuits anyway.

Still, all eyes remain on the Duran Duran case now McCartney has officially stepped down from the fight.