About Us Contact Us Privacy Policy Terms of Use Accuracy & Fairness Corrections & Clarifications Ethics Code Your Ad Choices
© MEAWW All rights reserved

How Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney for publishing rights to the Beatles catalog with $47 million offer

Paul McCartney had previously advised Michael Jackson to invest his money in music publishing, but that would later come back to haunt the former Beatle
UPDATED AUG 14, 2020
Paul McCartney (L) and Michael Jackson (Getty Images)
Paul McCartney (L) and Michael Jackson (Getty Images)

On August 14, 1985, something extraordinary happened in the world of music publishing. The event sent shock waves through the entertainment industry and ended the professional and personal relationship between two music icons, who had proved to be a great tag-team up to that point. The story we're talking about involves Michael Jackson and Sir Paul McCartney and how 35 years ago, the former Beatle lost the rights and royalties to his own music. Or to put it another way, the King of Pop shrewdly pipped Macca to the post by winning a multi-million dollar bidding war. But there's a hint of irony to this saga, considering McCartney had a hand in his own undoing and would later come to regret his actions. 


Back in 1983, the 40-year-old McCartney and 26-year-old Jackson were getting along like a house on fire. The talented duo had famously teamed up for two hit songs that year, scoring a Billboard No. 2 hit with 'The Girl Is Mine' in January, and later on, went one better with the No. 1 chart-topper 'Say Say Say'. The latter was included on McCartney's 'Pipes of Peace' album, which also contained a third Jackson collaboration, titled 'The Man'. It's safe to say that this epic partnership was working great for both songwriters and Jackson was quickly becoming the biggest pop star in the world thanks to the success of his album 'Thriller'. At this point, he was earning two dollars in royalties for every album sold and you can double that amount for inflation, so it was closer to 5 dollars in today's economy. So McCartney should have known better when he advised Jackson to invest his money in music publishing because after all, that was where the real passive income lay.


For a bit of context, every time an artists's copyrighted song was used for commercial purposes, a licensing fee was then paid to the record label, who in turn paid the artist in royalties. A separate licensing fee was also due to the track's songwriter, which is why some hit songwriters who weren't even performers could rake in guaranteed moolah for many years, after merely a penning a few hit songs. So securing the publishing rights to songs was certainly a lucrative business and McCartney must have been feeling the pinch after he lost his stake in Northern Songs, the publishing company he had part ownership of, along with fellow Beatle John Lennon.  

Beatles Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940 - 1980) at the Variety Club Showbusiness Awards held at the Dorchester, London. (Getty Images)

In 1969, the British company Associated Television (ATV) took over Northern Songs in contentious fashion, leading McCartney and Lennon to pull out of their contract for future compositions and they also promptly sold off their shares. But that also meant that Macca was no longer receiving compensation for Beatles songs that he had written and performed. “Very early on we got managed into a little situation,” McCartney revealed during a 1989 interview. “It meant that whatever the lion’s share of the songs we did were taken by someone else.” Now a little wiser, McCartney began to acquire the rights to well-loved songs for himself, which included the catalogs of cherished artists like Buddy Holly. He also advised a young Jackson that this was the best way to keep the money rolling in and Jackson joked to McCartney that one day he would own the Beatles catalog himself. Although Macca probably thought young Jackson was joking at the time, this was exactly what would come to pass.

(L-R) Paul McCartney poses with Michael Jackson, Michael Grant and Junior Waite of Musical Youth at the British Record Industry Awards in February 1983 (Getty Images)

In 1985, 16 years after they had gained the rights to 251 Beatles compositions, Associated Television, which was now owned by the Australian billionaire Robert Holmes à Court, announced that they would be auctioning off their entire publishing catalog. McCartney was in prime position to swoop in and take what was rightfully his, but he was outbid by an extremely wealthy Jackson. At the behest of Jackson, his entertainment lawyer John Branca eventually offered $47.5 million for the entire catalog, which included the Beatles hits 'Hey Jude', 'Yesterday' and 'Let It Be', as well as 4,000 other songs and a library of sound effects. The deal reportedly first took shape in late 1984, but negotiations stretched into the following year, with both parties allegedly getting cold feet at various points. 


Robert Holmes à Court's lawyers were concerned that Jackson might have been bidding on behalf of his friend McCartney, although this wasn't the case at all. Apparently, Jackson's lawyer Branca had previously checked with both McCartney and Lennon's widow Yoko Ono (Lennon was killed in 1980) if they planned to bid for the catalog, and was told they weren't planning to do so at the moment. McCartney must have had a change of heart later on, but by then it was too late, as Jackson acquired the rights to the Beatles catalog in August 1985. 

Popular American musician Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009) waves during the filming of the long-form music video for his song 'Bad,' directed by Martin Scorcese, New York, New York, 1987. (Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

McCartney clearly wasn't pleased to be outbid by his friend over his own songs and even remarked, "I think it’s dodgy to do something like that, to be someone’s friend, and then buy the rug they’re standing on." This bitterness soon grew into a rift and the once-friendly duo hardly ever spoke again as they began to drift apart, by McCartney's own admission. Jackson would later allude to this incident in his biography 'Moonwalk' (1988), where he said, "Paul and I both learned the hard way about business, and the importance of publishing and royalties and the dignity of songwriting." 


Jackson would go on to make an immense profit from the songs in the Beatles catalog, allowing them to be used in commercial advertisements, which appalled McCartney. He admitted, “It kind of spoils it. Just takes the edge off it. Our songs are tending to get a little commercialized now, which I’m not too wild on.” He later revealed to David Letterman in 2009 that he had asked Jackson for a share of the profits. “I wrote a couple of letters and I said, Michael, don’t you think that after 30 years of being successful to this company you now own, don’t you think I could have a raise?” Apparently, Jackson’s response was the quip, “Oh Paul, that’s just business."

Michael Jackson performs on stage during is "HIStory" world tour concert at Ericsson Stadium November 10, 1996 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Getty Images)

Jackson would later go on to sell half of his ATV stake to Sony for $95 million, which resulted in the music publishing company Sony/ATV owning the rights to not only Beatles songs, but also songs by artists like Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, and Roy Orbison. Seven years after Jackson died in 2009, Sony/ATV paid $750 million to the late singer's estate for the other half of Jackson's ATV stake. By this point, the Beatles catalog alone was worth in excess of one billion dollars. Thankfully, it all ended well for McCartney after he successfully reached an undisclosed settlement with Sony/ATV after he launched a lawsuit against them in 2017. This was thanks to the US Copyright Act of 1976, which gives songwriters the right to reclaim their copyright from music publishers after 35 years. Looks like McCartney will be content to just "let it be" from now on.