On January 18th, singer and former Beatles member Paul McCartney filed a complaint against Sony/ATV Music Publishing, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking a declaratory judgment on his ownership rights to certain works by The Beatles from the 1960s and 1970s. McCartney is asking the court to declare whether the termination notices he served Sony are valid, whether he will have copyright ownership on the termination dates, and whether the termination notices will result in Sony having a breach of contract claim against him.
According to the complaint, which has a lot of really great Beatles history, McCartney and John Lennon together composed several Beatles’ songs, which are at issue here, from September 1962 to June 1971. They also assigned the copyrights in these works to several different music publishers during the time period. Sony eventually acquired copyright interest in these works through various transfers. The songs fell under the 1909 Copyright Act, which give a copyright term of twenty-eight years and a renewal for another twenty-eight years. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term for works created before January 1st, 1978 by nineteen years, which granted a total of seventy-five possible years of protection from the original date of the copyright. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another twenty years, for a total of ninety-five years from the date of the copyright. However, Congress opted to protect authors who had transferred their rights before January 1st, 1978, and Section 304(c) of the Act allows for termination of transfers under certain conditions, including “at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of the fifty-six years from the date copyright was originally secured.” The law also states “termination of the grant may be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary.”
Since 2008, McCartney has served sixteen termination notices and recorded each at the U.S. Copyright Office in an attempt to regain ownership in his music. McCartney’s complaint said that Sony never contested the notices; however, when Duran Duran tried to terminate Sony’s copyright interest in their works from the 1980s in an unrelated case, the music publisher filed a suit against the band in the United Kingdom. A court there ruled that the publishing agreements between Duran Duran and Sony prohibited the termination, and because “the High Court found that the band members did not submit any admissible expert evidence on applicable U.S. law, the High Court declined to consider the band members’ argument that a U.S. court would not allow a claim for damages for breach of a contract because the statutory termination right supersedes any contractual right.” According to the complaint, Sony then indicated to McCartney that it might use the ruling against him, but he and Sony executives did attempt to work things out amicably. They were unable to do so though because Sony would not confirm through back and forth correspondence whether the termination notices were valid, which McCartney suspected was due to their waiting to see how the Duran Duran case would finally be resolved. Because the earliest termination date will occur next year, McCartney opted to file the declaratory judgment complaint to find out if he would be in breach of contract.
The case is James Paul McCartney v. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC and Sony/ATV Tunes LLC, 17cv363, Southern District of New York.
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