The Beatles‘ “Now And Then” arrived today (November 2), which has been billed as the iconic band’s “the last Beatles song” and was preceded by a short film capturing how the track was finished. This June, Sir Paul McCartney gave a little insight into how making The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson, fed into the process of piecing “Now And Then” together.
“Now And Then” is a bookend, but the 2021 documentary series also addressing the role Dick James, The Beatles’ original music publisher, played in the convoluted ownership of the band’s entire catalog (as chronicled by Forbes at the time of the docuseries’ release).
The publication provided context of the first changing-of-hands:
“In that scene (Part 1, starting at 2:09:40), you sense a scent of resentment, chilling the humor, killing the vibe. It’s the ‘suit’ in the room, the one who in 1963 had convinced Lennon and McCartney to sign over the copyrights to all of their Beatles songs, including ones not yet written.
How the Beatles signed away their publishing, a year before they blasted off globally, was unusual then as now. Neither a straight copyright purchase nor a co-publishing deal, James creatively set up Northern Songs as a copyright holding company that he would own with ‘the boys.’”
However, as Forbes continued to relay, James held a 50-percent ownership stake, while McCartney and John Lennon only had 20 percent — later reduced to 15 percent in 1965. Come 1969, James was out of the picture.
As Dan Rys wrote for Billboard in January 2017, “James sold his stake in Northern Songs to ATV Music, owned by Lew Grade, and despite Lennon and McCartney’s attempts to offer a counter bid, ATV gained control of the catalog. Later that year, the duo sold their remaining shares to ATV, leaving them without a stake in the publishing of their own songs (they both controlled their own respective songwriting shares).”
Fast forward to 1985, and the situation took an even more peculiar turn: Michael Jackson outbid McCartney for publishing rights to approximately 251 Beatles songs for $47 million (as per History).
As laid out by Billboard, the landscape shape-shifted several times between 1985 and 2016, including Jackson selling half of ATV to Sony to form Sony/ATV Music Publishing (in 1995), Jackson’s sudden June 2009 death shuffling his ownership share of The Beatles’ catalog to his estate, and Sony buying out Jackson’s 50 percent Sony/ATV stake to become the sole owner of McCartney and Lennon’s catalog.
In January 2017, McCartney sued Sony/ATV “to get a declaratory judgment that states he will soon regain his copyright ownership share” while leveraging the Copyright Act in his favor, The Hollywood Reporter reported at the time. That summer, various outlets reported that McCartney and Sony/ATV had “resolved this matter by entering into a confidential settlement agreement.”
“But since this termination right only applies within the US, Sony continues to publish the songs elsewhere, as confirmed by databases of music rights organizations outside the US,” Forbes‘ Bill Hochberg wrote in December 2021. “Sony Music Publishing – they dropped ATV from the name in 2021 – still owns the vast majority of the Beatles songbook worldwide and is unlikely to sell any of it, even in the current record-setting valuation heat wave.”
And that appears to be the state of things in 2023, as there have not been any publicly disclosed changes in the two intervening years.