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Sony/ATV responds to McCartney reversion right lawsuit

By | Published on Wednesday 15 March 2017

Paul McCartney

Sony/ATV has submitted a letter to the court considering Paul McCartney’s lawsuit against the music publisher. His litigation seeks clarification on his right to reclaim his share of the copyright in the Lennon/McCartney catalogue under the good old US reversion right. The Sony company’s lawyers are seeking to have the matter dismissed on the basis Macca is asking the judge to rule on something that hasn’t happened yet and may never happen.

As much previously reported, under US law songwriters who assign their copyrights to a music publisher have a right to terminate that assignment deal after 35 years (or 56 years if the assignment deal was done before 1978). Because this termination or reversion right came about in the late 1970s it is only really just kicking in, which means various technicalities are still being considered.

One big question is whether the reversion right applies to non-US songwriters who assigned their copyrights to non-US publishers – can those songwriters still reclaim the US rights in their songs under American copyright law? The songwriting community generally hoped that they could, but in a test case last year, a UK court ruled that Duran Duran didn’t have a reversion right under their English publishing contract.

Exercising the termination right requires the songwriter to go through a somewhat tedious bureaucratic process, and McCartney began that procedure in relation to his half of the Lennon/McCartney songs repertoire, which is owned by Sony/ATV, some time ago. Since being put on notice, the publisher hasn’t as yet said that it will attempt to block the former Beatle’s efforts to reclaim his rights.

However, McCartney’s reps say, nor has it confirmed that it won’t seek to block termination by citing the terms of his original English publishing contract, and they worry Sony/ATV is procrastinating so that it can see the outcome of the Duran Duran case, which also involves a Sony/ATV subsidiary called Gloucester Place Music. McCartney wants clarification that the publisher will ultimately allow his termination claim to go through unopposed.

This isn’t a matter for the courts, says Sony/ATV in a new filing, because there isn’t actually a dispute for the court to currently consider. In fact the dispute is about whether or not there’s a dispute. “As an initial matter, Sony/ATV has made no statement challenging the validity of plaintiff’s termination notices”, says the publisher in its letter to the court, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Indeed, it has acknowledged they are valid”, it goes on. “So there is no controversy regarding this issue. Nor has Sony/ATV claimed that plaintiff’s service of the notices breached any agreement and Sony/ATV may never make such a claim. The complaint thus impermissibly seeks an advisory opinion on a hypothetical claim that depends on both the outcome of Gloucester and contingent future actions that may never occur”.

Therefore, Sony/ATV argues, the court should dismiss McCartney’s lawsuit without prejudice, meaning he could always return to court at a later date should the publisher decide it does actually want to fight his claim to a reversion right. “A dismissal without prejudice now would spare this court the need to issue a decision that may be unnecessary pending the outcome of Gloucester”, it wrote. “While assuring that, if and when a claim is ever ripe, UK law will have been settled”.

Because, Sony/ATV is basically saying, this is ultimately a matter of UK law, and therefore a US court would want the relevant precedent-setting case to be settled in an English court before making any decision on a dispute that hasn’t happened yet, but might, though the publisher isn’t currently saying it will. Fun this, isn’t it?

“Here, plaintiff is a UK citizen and the grants were negotiated and entered into in the UK with UK companies with respect to songs presumably written in the UK in return for payment in the UK”, the Sony papers go on. “This court would therefore presumably look to the Gloucester case, which is unsettled as it is currently being appealed”.

It has to be said, all this does seem to back up Team McCartney’s concerns that the major publisher might change its tune on his reversion rights should it ultimately prevail in the Duran Duran case over here. Though you can’t dispute that this dispute is currently about a dispute that hasn’t happened yet – but can you dispute that this dispute about a dispute that hasn’t happened yet isn’t valid, given the outcome of the other dispute may well lead to the dispute that hasn’t happened yet happening? Yeah, dispute that if you can.