McCartney's Second Bite at the (Recording Co.) Apple

In a previous post, discussing Paul McCartney's decades-long gripe regarding songwriting order attribution (to make-up a phrase), I made note of McCartney's net worth ($660 million) to anchor the essay in reality:  the world's most famous living songwriter (and the second wealthiest) still nursing a long-held grievance over when his name should lead and follow when referenced as a tandem with deceased Beatle John Lennon that is more ego and PR-driven than money-driven. Notably, from the source estimating McCartney's estimated net worth, the CNN Money author speculated that McCartney's new worth will climb higher than otherwise normal because we are entering a time-window where many performing artists are (attempting) to reclaim the copyright in the original sound recordings used on the Beatles, Wings, and McCartney solo albums.  The termination and reversion provisions in the 1976 Copyright Act have been subject to quality academic scholarship, and at the least, is worth noting here for (presumably) a predominantly lay audience.

As Congress and the various committee members worked for well-over a decade on what eventually became the 1976 Copyright Act, replacing the 1909 Copyright Act, the contractual sins committed in the popular music industry came home to roost (to a degree) - sins too numerous to recount.  Motivated in part by the inadvertent loss of copyright protection through renewal failure,[1] and the arguably unconscionable recording contracts utilized by record companies (many of which forced assignment of copyrights and the subsequent sound recordings resulting from studio session work), Congress inserted two termination and reversion provisions in the 1976 Copyright Act in an attempt to (partially) ameliorate these problems that often economically prejudiced the authors/creators of the original work(s).

The first termination/reversion provision appears at 17 USC Sect. 203, which allows an author to terminate grants of copyright assignments and licenses that were made on or after January 1, 1978, the termination being effective no sooner than 35 years measured from the date of grant (or publication). As is clear, that section of the Act addresses works created after Jan. 1, 1978, the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act that carried with it changes in the term of the copyright (life of author + 50 years -- and which is now life + 70 years) and the removal of the renewal provision.

The second termination provision appears at 17 USC Sect. 304, setting forth the timing of a termination of a work so long as the underlying copyright was in its initial 28-year period or its renewal (final) 28-year period existing on the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act (Jan. 1, 1978), so long as the work was not a "work made for hire" (WMFH).  The end-point of the assignment/licensing term is measured as 56 years from the original from the day copyright was secured (or Jan. 1, 1978, whichever is the latest in sequence.

The enforceability of either provision is subject to a pre-condition that the author meet several specified requirements in the request for termination.

For McCartney, and assuming proper notification is perfected, the likely sequence for McCartney's termination and re-capture rights under Sect. 203 (35 years) appears to be:

  • 2013 - songs from the 1978 studio LP London Town
  • 2013 - songs from the 1978 compilation LP Wings Greatest (including four new/previously unreleased tracks + "Live and Let Die" which had appeared only on the Bond film soundtrack of the same name)
  • 2014 - songs from the 1979 studio LP Back to the Egg
  • 2017 - songs from the 1982 studio LP Tug of War (featuring hit single duet with Stevie Wonder, "Ebony and Ivory")
  • 2018 - songs from the 1983 studio LP Pipes of Peace (featuring hit single duet with Michael Jackson "Say, Say, Say")

More importantly, if history is any indication, McCartney's termination and re-capture rights under Sect. 304 (56 years from original) for the original Beatles catalog (owned by Apple Records) begins in 2019, and continues sequentially thereafter for the next seven years into 2026.  Given the unprecedented singles-chart ubiquity that The Beatles enjoyed upon their early arrival in the U.S.,[2] corresponding to the enormous popularity of The Fab Four, when McCartney is able to get his paws on The Beatles catalog, I fully anticipate several packaging options (without the original album artwork, which is itself separately copyrighted, most likely by the record companies).  Thus, the firmly-rooted speculation by CNN that soon (very soon), McCartney will become even wealthier through the additional exploitation of the The Beatles back-catalog (subject to the accounting owed by McCartney to the other Beatles and/or their estates).


1. Under the 1909 Copyright Act (immediately prior to implementation of the 1976 Copyright Act), a copyright was initially registered for a 28-year term and subject to a final 28-year renewal term. However, more often than should have happened, the original registrant (not the creator) would allow the original term to expire without renewing the term and without notifying the creator of that decision, thereby effectively preventing the creator from capturing the final 28-year term for further exploitation. This problem became particularly acute with the development of home video market as a channel for sales of feature films and syndicated television shows and the media-technology-format changes in the music industry (from LP to cassette and 8-track and then CD). Without securing the final 28-year term, both the company and the artist lost out on revenue, and opportunistic media companies could capitalize by re-packaging material no longer blocked by copyright protection. 2. In the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 singles chart issued for April 4, 1964, The Beatles held all five positions atop the Hot 100 chart: No. 1 - "Can't Buy Me Love"; No. 2 - "Twist and Shout"; No. 3 - "She Loves You"; No. 4 - "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; and No. 5 - "Please Please Me".