Michael Jackson passed away on June 25, 2009, but the music legacy he left behind will last forever. Michael was a song writer, performer and actor, and was also the owner of publishing rights to the majority of the Beatles’ songs.
The Beatles’ songs have federal copyright registrations. Copyrights are rights granted to the creator of a literary work, such as music, pictures, books, and the like to publish, distribute, and adapt the work as the creator wishes. Copyrights are usually enforceable between 50 and 100 years after the author dies, but some expire earlier depending on the country. When the copyright expires, the right to the work is given to the general public (similar to patents).
Artists grant publishing companies the “rights” to their work, and the publishing company advertises and promotes the artist to gain revenue. Allowing others to publish the work has many advantages and disadvantages. Publishing companies help create revenue through licensing the artists’ work. By licensing the works to other artists, writers, and performers, the publishing company collects royalties. The publishing company in return gets a percentage of the money, usually a 50% cut with the artist. The rights do not give the publishing party too much control over the usage of works but allows the publishing party to make money while promoting the artist.
In 1963, the Beatles sold publishing rights to their songs to Northern Song, a company owned by their manager Brian Epstein, and a music publisher, Dick James. Soon the band was making so much money that they were losing almost all of it to taxes. To overcome this, they decided to put their money into a public company. John Lennon and Paul McCartney each held 15% of the company’s shares, while Dick James and the company’s chairman, Charles Silver, held a the majority at 37.5% of the shares. The rest was sold to the public on the London Stock Exchange. Later, the heads of Northern Song sold their controlling shares to Associated Television Share (ATV) who then became the owner of the publishing rights. In 1984, ATV sold their music catalog and Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney at $47.5 million. The music catalog is now believed to be worth over $400 million. Michael therefore owns the publishing rights for most of the Beatles songs, but McCartney and Lennon still receive their 50% songwriters’ payment for royalties. In 1995, Jackson merged with Sony, and they jointly own the publishing rights.
Because Jackson does not own the copyright, his share of the company will most likely be transferred to his heirs. There is much speculation that Michael is giving Paul McCartney his publishing rights. It will be interesting in the weeks to come to see who acquires Michael’s shares of the Beatles’ songs.
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