This past week, Sir Paul McCartney was finally able to regain the copyrights to much of the Beatles' music catalog. The acquisition was part of a confidential settlement agreement related to a lawsuit filed this past January by McCartney seeking to regain individual songs that would meet the 56-year-old requirement in 2018.
The Beatles first single, Love Me Do, was released in 1962. So, by next year, the songs on that first album would be 56 years old. Under the Copyright Act, artists have the right to regain their copyrights after 56 years (or 35 years depending on the date of copyright), which cannot be waived by agreement.
A Smooth Copyright Betrayer?
While our knighted hero has been trying since 1969 to get his copyrights back, his efforts have been frustrated on several occasions (assuming he is who he says he is). McCartney has been consistently outbid every time he had the chance to purchase back his own band's catalog.
Most notably, in 1985, Michael Jackson, who was a close friend to McCartney at the time, outbid him and purchased the Beatles' music catalog in a massive $47.5 million deal. Although McCartney is rumored to have advised Jackson about how lucrative music publishing could be, Jackson's purchase of the Beatles' catalog allegedly ruined their relationship. Then, after Jackson's death, Sony purchased the Beatles' catalog, in 2016, from Jackson's estate. Sony bought the rights in an even larger $750 million deal.
Old Copyright Claw-Back
Under section 304 of the Copyright Act of 1976, songs written in or after 1978 can be reclaimed by their authors after 35 years, while earlier songs require an author to wait 56 years before seeking to reclaim their copyrights. This right to reclaim the copyright is referred to as a "claw-back."
Interestingly, this claw-back right cannot be waived, though there are several exceptions to that. One of the more prominent exceptions includes works for hire. For example, if a person is hired to write songs for a company, those songs belong to the company and the writer will not have a claw-back claim.