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Who owns the rights to the music of Michael Jackson and The Beatles?

By the way: the Beatles catalogue is now valued at over $1 billion....

How Michael Jackson bought the rights to The Beatles' music

In 1985, the now legendary Beatle Paul McCartney gave the King of Pop some business advice: buy the rights to publish a catalogue of songs by other artists. McCartney didn't realise at the time that Jackson would beat him at his own game... Of course: giving useful advice to a friend is the best expression of human nature! But when that advice comes back to bite the very person who offered it... Well, that can be a cruel twist of fate. That's what happened to Paul, the author of most of The Beatles' songs, in 1985.

The advice that ruined a friendship

McCartney and Jackson became friends in the mid-1970s, when they first met to discuss possible songwriting collaborations. The two eventually had great hits: "The Girl Is Mine" (the title single from the popular Thriller album), and "Say, Say, Say" (from McCartney's Pipes of Peace album).

And so, it was during this period of mutually beneficial cooperation that McCartney told Michael how lucrative catalogue rights to other artists and bands could be... Paul then lost his stake in Northern Songs, the publishing company he had founded with John Lennon. And that meant only one thing: he would no longer receive full and permanent compensation from the catalogue.

"It meant that the lion's share of our songs were taken by someone else."

This is what Paul McCartney looked like at his press release ...
This is what Paul McCartney looked like at his press release ...

Soon after, McCartney began acquiring the rights to other artists' catalogues, including Buddy Holly's! He told Jackson about it, not realising how seriously he would take the information... When Jackson said that one day he would own Beatles songs, Paul just waved it off, thinking his friend was joking. However, in 1985 the joke became reality and the friendship broke up.

Jackson paid $47.5 million for the Beatles catalogue

In 1985, Michael purchased the ATV catalogue for $47.5 million with over one million copyrights, including 250 Beatles songs! The catalogue was considered a gem of the music industry and caused much controversy and disagreement between Jackson and SONY. It featured songs by the Beatles and many other artists who didn't actually own their songs! They belonged to the studios. Jackson thought this was a wicked irony.....

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

His struggle with SONY was legendary, as was his business savvy during his ownership of the catalogue. He was a successful black businessman who was disliked by the racist and wealthy elite of the music industry... Having founded the SONY / ATV venture in the mid 90's, he had a say in music publishing. His catalogue was priceless, and Michael himself was the first and only black man to own such a diversity of music... The artist sometimes predicted that one day he would be killed for that catalogue.

Under the contract, SONY had the option to initiate a buy-sell provision in its joint venture with Jackson, in which one party could buy half of the other. Already after the artist's death, SONY exercised its option in 2016 without notice, informing the Jackson Estate of its intention to buy the other half or sell its own. John Branca and John McClain agreed that SONY owned the entire SONY / ATV catalogue, paying the Estate about $733 million! Thus, SONY got the largest catalogue in the music publishing business with annual sales of just under $600 million... Jackson himself would never sell his catalogue to SONY. His contentious relationship with that corporation, and in particular with Tommy Mottola, was long, public and well-documented. The artist also suspected that SONY was behind the child abuse allegations during his lifetime. His family maintains similar suspicions. For their part, the Estate has stated that they sold the catalogue to SONY in order to improve the legacy of Michael Jackson's children's...

McCartney's reaction to the commercialisation of Beatles music

When Jackson bought the catalogue, the Beatles' songs suddenly became an advertising opportunity. And the band itself deliberately avoided such commercial use, despite the many attractive price offers... In 1989 McCartney denounced a former friend:

"It kind of spoils our creativity, makes it cheap... It just takes the edge off the music. Our songs tend to be commercialised, but we've never been into that..."

Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson

Actually, McCartney managed to win back the rights to the catalogue, though - after Jackson's death.

"He was a wonderful person. He's very talented and we miss him..." - Paul stated. At the same time, he admitted that after Jackson bought the catalogue, their friendship came to an end....

After Jackson's death, rumours swirled that he would leave the rights to McCartney's catalogue in his will. The former Beatle didn't believe it.

"There was a rumour in the media some time ago that Michael was going to leave me his share of the Beatles songs," McCartney wrote on his website. "But this is completely made up."

Following a lawsuit in 2017, McCartney reached a settlement with Sony / ATV over the copyright to the Beatles' catalogue under the 1976 US Copyright Act, which allows songwriters to claim copyright from music publishers 35 years after they passed it on. Details were not made public, and McCartney's lawyer told the judge that the two sides had "resolved the matter by entering into a confidential settlement agreement". By the way: the Beatles catalogue is now valued at more than $1 billion.

What happened to the catalogue?

Sony / ATV's catalogue has grown over the years and it now owns or manages the copyrights to more than three million songs, including hits by Sting and Lady Gaga. The company controls some of the most famous songs in the world, including "Over The Rainbow" and "New York, New York." With the rise of streaming, the value of the catalogue exceeds what Sony pays for it... But though Sony / ATV still manages MIJAC Music, ownership remains with Michael Jackson's estate. The record company owns and controls access to the master tapes to which the artist signed away full rights when he first signed with CBS / Epic. However, his family will never be granted access to these materials, and the tapes are likely just rotting away in a warehouse somewhere....

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