The question of “Who owns The Beatles music?” is not going to be a quick answer. Although the answer is going to be short and sweet, how we get to this point isn’t. The story is a complex one, infiltrated by, I am sure, some dodgy dealings.
You only have to look at some of the names involved to make you ask the question, “Do I trust these people?” It is also a story about vulnerability, poor advice, and immaturity. Young songwriters today would do well to take heed.
Something of Value
The ownership of the copyright to music is a profitable business. More so than anything else associated with the industry. It is, therefore, a big business decision to get hold of as much of this lucrative source of income as possible.
And, where The Beatles are concerned, that becomes an even bigger deal. They don’t get much bigger than that. The catalog has changed hands a few times and is now rather segmented for several reasons.
But let’s go back to the beginning and look at the timeline of the owners of The Beatles’ songs. Maybe even make some comments about how it progressed to where we end up.
In The Beginning
You could say that everything in the garden was rosy until 1963. John and Paul were writing songs and were still friends. George was doing what he was told, and Ringo, who joined in 1962, was just pleased to be there.
They had signed a recording contract with Parlophone after being rejected by Decca. They were contractually obliged to record at least one album each year. George Martin and Brian Epstein worked out a plan to do two albums and four singles each year. A tall order.
With the band writing a good proportion of their songs, they needed a publisher. Rather than just sign the rights away, Brian Epstein suggested they form their own publishing company. Brian, who managed them, was one of the few, very few, people who put them first.
They took the easy way out in some respects and allowed ex-singer-turned-publisher Dick James to set it up with them. They set up Northern Songs in 1963 to publish all Beatles songs written by the band. This included the publishing of the first album, Please Please Me.
It was a simple company arrangement…
One between the members of the band, Dick James, and Brian Epstein. The new publishing company would be “supervised” by Dick James Music, his own publishing company.
That seemed acceptable on the face of it. But, it did place him in an advantageous position in terms of Northern Songs’ business interests.
Things went very well between 1963 and 1965…
In 1965, they decided to go public and Northern Songs became a limited company. The owners/shareholders were Dick James, Charlie Silver (James’ business partner), Brian Epstein, and all four Beatles.
Lennon and McCartney got a bigger slice of the cake than George and Ringo as they wrote the songs.
Everybody Was Happy
It didn’t stay that way for very long, as we shall see. Four young kids from Liverpool who hadn’t a clue about the business world just wanted to write their songs and play. On the other side, there were Dick James and Charlie Silver, who only saw dollar signs.
And you didn’t have to look too hard for dollar signs to appear. A succession of great albums with some great songs, improving with every release.
- With The Beatles.
- A Hard Day’s Night.
- Beatles for Sale (an interesting title that may have been promoted by how they saw themselves).
- Rubber Soul.
And the last Beatles album before Apple Corporation was formed, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Also, don’t forget the singles, which were never included on the albums. At least in the UK, anyway.
And, in the middle of all this success was Brian Epstein, as ever, the man who took care of these young, vulnerable musicians.
1966 and On
The arrangement was still holding together by 1966, but the band was showing the first signs of tearing itself apart. How much of that was to do with the shareholder agreements which were in place is hard to tell.
The Beatles were not happy with James for many reasons. And, in 1968, when the contract came up for renewal, George and Ringo declined. They set up separate publishing arrangements that they had total control over. Lennon and McCartney renewed their contracts as shareholders.
This was 1968, and John and Paul had serious personal problems between them and hardly spoke. That may have contributed to them renewing without too much consultation with each other.
The Hammer Blow
Brian Epstein died in 1969. If there was one thing holding it all together, it was him. He had been their father figure right from the start. It didn’t take long for the sharks to begin to circle.
They say sharks can smell the blood of a wounded creature from miles away. And this wounded animal was there for the taking. James sold his shares to the American company ATV music the same year.
This was despite the band, especially Lennon and McCartney, pleading with him not to and making him a counter-offer. James made a fortune, and The Beatles were left with nothing in the way of publishing rights.
Lennon and McCartney…
Still, at odds with each other, both sold out to ATV, also in 1969. What would have been the point of keeping their shares? Well, there were still some influential and lucrative Beatles songs on the way.
The best album they made was The White Album in 1968. And, in 1969, we had Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and finally, Let It Be. After that, it was over.
There had been some wonderful success stories in those brief eight years. But, plenty of bitterness internally and externally as well. I think the loss of Brian was the final nail in the coffin. They just didn’t want it anymore.
The Beatles saw James’ action as a betrayal, and he had taken advantage of them to make a rather large quick buck. You can’t blame ATV; it is in their DNA. James signed the sale, said thanks very much, and laughed all the way to the bank.
The Beatles had lost the rights and the publishing of their catalog of songs. So, who owns The Beatles music?
Michael Jackson with Paul McCartney bought ATV music in 1985 after a conversation about the financial value of publishing music. At that time, ATV had a catalog of over 4,000 songs. Of those, 251 were Beatles compositions.
Jackson sold off half of his total interest in the publishing rights of ATV music to Sony in 1995. This saw the formation of Sony/ATV Music publishing.
When he died, his 50% share that remained became the property of his estate. Sony bought that 50% stake. Now, it was Sony who had ownership of the Beatles’ music. We had gone from Northern Songs to ATV to Michael Jackson to 50% to ATV/Sony, and now solely to Sony.
It’s Not Over Yet
There is a statute within US Copyright Law about the restoration of rights. It says briefly that after 56 years, the rights must be given back to the original owner. In 2017, McCartney filed a suit in a court of law to get some of his copyrights back.
He won the case and, with it, 32 of their early releases. The rest will become available in 2026.
This successful action does not apply to John’s share of the royalties. Yoko sold that off to Sony until 70 years after his death. That allows them to maintain ownership of his share. I doubt he would have been very impressed.
Want to Learn More About The Beatles and Music Rights?
Well, take a look at our detailed articles on What Genre are The Beatles, the Best Beatles Songs, Do You Need Permission To Upload A Cover Song To YouTube, and “I Do Not Own the Rights to This Music” – What Does That Mean for more helpful information.
And, for you aspiring songwriters, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, the Best Guitars For Small Hands, the Best Low Action Acoustic Guitar, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, and the Best Left-Handed Acoustic Guitars you can buy in 2023.
Who Owns the Beatles Music? – Final Thoughts
It has been a long, and at times, complicated journey. The copyrights of Beatles songs have changed hands quite a few times in those 60 years. But, gradually, Paul is getting his share back, at least. Even if John’s has disappeared into Sony’s bank account.
But, by 2026, at least part of The Beatles catalog will be back where it belongs. I am not sure there will ever be a situation where it will all be recovered.
2017 was significant. He had been trying since the 80s to get them back. By 2026, he will once again own all the songs he wrote. It will have been a long, and I suspect, costly road to go down.
Until next time, happy listening.