Who Owns The Beatles’ Publishing Right: Easy as 123?

Michael Jackson’s death has the surviving members of the Beatles in knots. Not only because they just lost a fellow musician and entertainment icon, but also because Jackson’s untimely death has left his estate mired in legal complexities regarding the future ownership of the publishing rights of the Beatles’ catalogue. As co-owner of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Jackson’s estate currently holds a 50 per cent hold on the Beatles’ catalogue, an investment now worth over $1 billion.

As one of the biggest musical acts in history, and arguably the most profitable, how did The Beatles’ publishing rights end up in the hands of Michael Jackson?

Sony/ATV Music Publishing is a publishing company co-owned by Sony and the late Michael Jackson.  Among their holdings is a 267-song catalogue of Beatles songs under the Northern Songs collection, whose story begins in the early ’60s.

Northern Songs Ltd. was a publishing company founded in 1963 by Dick James and Beatles manager, Brian Epstein. The publishing company was assigned the publishing rights to all songs within the Lennon/McCartney song catalogue. Lennon and McCartney were contractually bound to continue songwriting under Northern Songs until 1973.

In January of 1965, Northern Songs went public on the London Stock Exchange, leaving about 30% holdings with Lennon and McCartney and about 42% interest with Epstein, James, and Charles Silver (Northern Songs’ chairman).

With Epstein’s death in 1967, Lennon and McCartney attempted to renegotiate their publishing deal with Dick James. However, early in 1969, James and Silver abruptly sold their shares in Northern Songs to Sir Lew Grade of Associated Television music (ATV). After further purchases of shares traded on the LSE, ATV now had a majority holding in Northern Songs.

Although Beatles’ replacement manager, Allen Klein, attempted to negotiate a deal for Apple Corps to buy out ATV, Klein was ultimately outmanoeuvred. In October of 1969, Lennon and McCartney decided to sell their remaining shares in the company to ATV (while keeping their writer’s royalties) in order to free themselves from the publishing contract with Northern Songs.

ATV continued to hold a controlling interest in Northern Songs until 1985, after which a takeover battle forced the catalogue to be offered for sale.  Michael Jackson stepped in, outbidding Paul McCartney, and took the rights for the Beatles’ 267-song catalogue home for $47.5 million. In 1995, Jackson merged the Northern Songs catalogue with Sony Music publishing for $95 million to establish Sony/ATV Music Publishing, each retaining 50 per cent ownership.  (More about Northern Songs and ATV here).

As the new steward of the Beatles’ catalogue, Jackson used the Beatles’ songs in numerous commercials and media ventures in an effort to capture the attention of future generations. Most recently, Sony/ATV have teamed up with Harmonix Music Systems to release the newest instalment of videogame bestseller, Rock Band – Beatles: Rock Band. While Yoko Ono has spoken highly of the fellow artist’s stewardship of the songs, McCartney has begrudgingly voiced his annoyance in having to pay royalties each time he performs a Beatles song.

The financial strain due to his lavish lifestyle and legal battles ensuing from the mid-90s caused Jackson to place his interest in the company as collateral on a $270 million loan from the Bank of America (acquired by Fortress investments in 2005).  In 2006, Jackson also offered Sony the option to buy half of his 50 per cent stake in Sony/ATV to help him refinance his $300 million in loans. It is recently reported that Sony is looking to exercise that option. Combining Jackson’s stake, Sony/ATV is currently worth an estimated $1 billion.

Due to his deteriorating health earlier this year, Jackson reportedly told his lawyers that he wished to “make things right” and repair the rift between him and McCartney, leading to speculations that Jackson had his will altered to leave the publishing rights with the remaining controllers of the Beatles estate. However, Jackson’s family lawyer, L. Londell McMillan, has stated that at least one of Jackson’s wills is missing. According to the will made in 2002, Jackson’s assets would go to the Michael Jackson Family Trust, which leaves 40% to his children, 40% to his mother, and the remainder to charities working with children.

Even though Jackson is thought to have grossed over $2 billion over his 40 year career and brings in between $13 million and$ 20 million annually from his stake in The Beatles’ songs alone, it is estimated that Jackson’s creditors are still owed between $400 and $500 million.

There is no doubt that McCartney, Ono, Starr, and Olivia Harrison will be putting up a fight against Sony and the line up of creditors for a piece of the very lucrative publishing rights. However, they may have to wait patiently for a result as there are many legal and administrative issues to be resolved. Jackson’s estate is also mired with other complexities involving his children and family, and it may be a long time before anything is resolved. Until the dust settles from the flurry over Jackson’s estate, it is too early to tell who and what percentage will own the Fab Four’s publishing rights.

Arguments over the estate of Jimi Hendrix were not settled until 2005, some 20 years after his death. I am certainly not holding my breath for a quick answer here.