Yesterday on his radio show, host Glenn Beck talked about Michael Jackson and his ownership of the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog of songs.
Most people know that in 1984 Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles’ songs, but Beck was making the point that most people don’t know that the reason the Beatles sold the rights to their songs to begin with was because they were losing 90% of their income to taxes. He likens the Beatles problem with taxes to our problems today.

Beck cites the website, which I wanted to share, not only because it gives some great information about the Beatles/Michael Jackson story, but because it does a great job of summing up some of the basics of song publishing rights.
Most music fans assume that when an artist records a song, and the song sells well, the artist makes money. But with so many hands in the pot, the artist doesn’t end up with a whole lot of the profit.
Where an artist can make a living is when he’s writing songs that other people record. The songwriter who penned the lyrics and melody – not always the same people – get paid a royalty whenever someone records the song, the song is used on TV or in the movies, or is printed as sheet music. The company that holds the publishing rights also gets a piece of the action.
So while the Beatles sold the publishing rights to their songs, Paul McCartney and John Lennon still held the songwriting rights, and as such were paid royalties.
Here’s another example of how it can work: composer Alexander Courage penned the now famous theme to “Star Trek;” Gene Roddenberry added lyrics to the song (without Courage’s knowledge, from most reports I’ve read), and when it was registered with the publishing company, Courage and Roddenberry were listed as the songwriters. Even though the lyrics are never used, Roddenberry and Courage split the songwriter royalties 50/50.

It’s obviously much more complicated than what I’ve written, or even what Snopes explains, but for the average music fan it’s a good summary of the basics of song publishing.
For more information, visit
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