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When Songwriters are Sued for Sounding Like Themselves

It was a surreal lawsuit. John Fogerty, the voice and principle songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival, had just released an album called Centerfield to much commercial success. And then he was sued for sounding too much like himself. He’d lost the publishing rights to all those old CCR songs to his record label and there was much bitterness on both sides.

Saul Zaentz, owner of Fantasy Records and the holder of the copyright of some CCR songs, though John’s material sounded too much like his old stuff–stuff that he owned the rights to. So he sued John Fogerty for plagiarising….John Fogerty.

I bring this up because Bobby has forwarded this article from that discusses some of the weird points of music publishing.

Back in 1984, Michael Jackson had an idea. An awful idea. Michael Jackson had a wonderful, awful idea.

The idea: Drop $47.5 million (adjusted for inflation = $108.7 million) to acquire the rights to nearly all of the Beatles songs penned by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Jackson’s advisors and studio executive friends considered it an awful investment at the time, and essentially told the King of Pop that he should stick to moonwalking and leave the music publishing deals to the suits (business suits, not shiny red leather suits).

The idea was made doubly awful considering it was Sir Paul McCartney himself who introduced Jackson to the concept of investing in music publishing rights.

As the story goes, while hanging out with Jackson in 1981, McCartney pulled out a sheet listing all of the songs to which he owned the rights. There was Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” made popular by Elvis. There were a bunch of Broadway show tunes. And then there was the entire Buddy Holly catalogue.

This encounter with McCartney inspired Jackson to start building up his own menagerie of music. But in 1984, when Jackson pulled the trigger on the purchase of ATV Music Publishing — a 4,000-song catalogue that included 150+ Beatles tunes— Sir McCartney was none too happy about it.

Jackson and McCartney had been frequent collaborators up until that point (“The Girl Is Mine”; “Say Say Say”). But post-purchase, their relationship petered out.

Celebrity friendships aside, from a financial perspective, Jackson’s move to acquire the world’s biggest chunk of Beatles songs proved to be (surprise?) brilliant.

Today, the music catalogue that Jackson bought for $47.5 million back in 1984 is valued at around $2 billion. Although to be fair, that’s the post-Sony-merger valuation.

You see, back in 1995, Sony gave Jackson $95 million (adjusted for inflation = $148 million) in exchange for a 50/50 stake in what would become Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Today, Sony/ATV owns more copyrights than any other music publishing company in the world, boasting a collection of 4 million+ songs.

Got that? Here is where it turns weird.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38150 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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