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The Straight Dope 

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My understanding is that Michael Jackson slyly acquired the copyrights to the entire Beatles library, much to the dismay of his ex-friend Paul McCartney. I also hear that despite much pleading, he refuses to sell any of them back. Does this mean that he can overdub the masters with his own voice? Are we liable to see copies of Abbey Road with five people crossing the street and mysterious falsettos throughout? --Saddened fan from Oregon

You think an overdubbed Beatles tune could be any weirder than a new Beatles song with John Lennon? Then again, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" overdubbed by a guy with his hand on his crotch and his hair on fire would be pretty hard to top. But don't worry, it won't happen, or anyway it won't happen as a result of Jackson owning the Beatles library.

What Michael Jackson bought for $47.5 million in 1985 was the publishing rights to 159 or 251 Beatles songs, depending on who's counting. To maybe oversimplify an unbelievably complicated business, publishing rights are basically the sheet-music rights. When Paul McCartney wanted to print the lyrics to "Eleanor Rigby" and other Beatles classics in the program for his 1989 world tour, he discovered he'd have to pay Jackson a fee. The owner of the publishing rights (hereinafter the publisher) also gets a royalty when someone plays a Beatles song on a jukebox or the radio or does a cover version of a Fab Four tune. This can earn the publisher some serious cash, particularly in the case of elevator music--to which, let's be frank, a lot of Beatles tunes are well suited.

But there are a couple things the publisher can't do. The first is to mess with or license the use of Beatles recordings. Jackson agreed to license the words and music of "Revolution" to Nike for a 1987 shoe commercial, but he had to persuade Capitol Records, owner of the tune's North American recording rights, to allow the actual recording to be used. Most likely he'd have to do the same to overdub said recording with his own voice, though he might get away with including a snippet in a musical collage--which even John Lennon did--something that's become impossible to control.

Another thing the publisher can't do (in the U.S. at least) is prevent somebody from recording a cover version of a song the publisher owns. Usually the would-be cover artist and the publisher work out a deal on royalties. However, if negotiations fail, U.S. law allows the cover artist to make and market the recording anyway, provided he pays a stipulated (and fairly stiff) royalty to the publisher.

The point is, being a publisher doesn't give you all that much control over the songs you own; mainly it gives you the right to the profits they earn. You don't even get to keep all of that; typically you have to give 50 percent to each song's composer(s)--one reason not to feel too sorry for Paul McCartney and the estate of John Lennon. Another reason is that McCartney, despite having got skunked out of his own songs, somehow contrived to buy the rights to 3,000 others, including the Buddy Holly catalog, and reportedly is worth $600 million. Not that he's happy, of course. He's mad at Jackson not merely because he lost control of the Beatles library, but also because Jackson won't discuss giving McCartney a higher composer's royalty for the old tunes.

The last reason not to feel sorry for Paul is that if he got skunked it's his own fault. To avoid confiscatory British taxes in the late 60s, he and Lennon turned their publishing rights over to newly organized Northern Songs, a publicly held company in which they owned sizable but apparently not controlling blocks of stock. In 1969 music mogul Lew Grade launched a takeover bid for Northern Songs, offering seven times the stock's original offering price. Lennon and McCartney, feuding as usual, were unable to organize an effective defense, and the company was sold out from under them. This made them even more fabulously wealthy than they already were, since their stock was now worth seven times as much. However, they were still pissed on account of, you know, the principle of the thing. The teeming millions can surely sympathize.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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