Tuesday 17 October 2023

Sue Me, Sue You Blues: The Beatles and The Law

In December 1970, Dirk sued Stig and Nasty; Barry sued Dirk; Nasty sued Stig and Barry; and Stig sued himself accidentally...

It was the beginning of a golden era for lawyers, but for the Rutles,  it was the beginning of the end.

The above of course is from The Rutles, a 'mockumentary' which satirises  the career of the Beatles, but sadly, not too far removed from the reality, as I learned on Monday evening when I attended 'The Beatles and the Law', a lecture at the Yoko Ono Lennon Centre in Liverpool University. I was accompanied by my friend, fellow MA, Beatles' historian and blogger, Steve Bradley. 

        Ron Decline / Allen Klein

    Sir David Andrew Foxton KC (image: Wikipedia)

The presentation was by Sir David Andrew Foxton KC, the Judge in charge of the Commercial Court in London.

A keen Beatles fan, with family links to Liverpool, in preparing for the talk he sought the counsel of a friend in the legal profession about speaking to a Liverpool audience for the first time. 

Wisely, his friend told him to remain strictly neutral, between the red and the blue halves of the city. Sir David acknowledged that this friend's advice is almost invariably to be followed, but on this particular occasion he had decided not to, because "while both have great merit, the superior quality of the blue is undeniable".  

As the words were leaving his lips there were audible gasps from the gallery. With half of the audience reaching for their silver hammer - me included - he continued, 'the Beatles 1967-70 will always have the edge over the Beatles 1962-1966", just as the front covers of the red and blue albums appeared on the screen above him, diffusing a potentially explosive situation.   

In front of an audience comprising of Lawyers, Beatles' fans, and Beatles' fans who work/had worked in Lawyer's offices (me and Steve), Foxton began by explaining  how the Beatles' long breakup period, from 1969 to 1971, was accelerated by the appointment of Allen Klein as the Beatles manager and ultimately led to the first major litigation involving the group: Paul McCartney's  lawsuit against his fellow Fabs at the High Court in London on 31 December 1970, in which he sought to extricate himself from their legal partnership.

Paul and Linda at the High Court in 1971.

Fortunately for Paul, the Judge did agree, and he told him so, uh oh-oh. [I promise there will be no more Maxwell references] . Of the presiding Justice Stamp, Klein would remark 'that old Judge, Stamp, he didn't understand what it was all about. He got lost. He got Beatlemania.' 

We heard how this litigious breakup inspired several songs, one great 'You Never Give Me Your Money' and one so-so,  George's 'Sue Me Sue You Blues', which surely should have been the subtitle of the presentation. 

The protracted legal wranglings to dissolve the Beatles continued until 1975 by which time John, George and Ringo were also having doubts about Mr Klein, with John putting his feelings about his former manager into his 1974 song, 'Steel and Glass.' 

Photo: Steve Bradley

In the mid-1970s both George and John faced lawsuits over copyright infringement.

In 1970, 'My Sweet Lord' gave George Harrison his first solo No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first solo Beatle to reach the top. A few months after release, George was sued for plagiarism by Bright Tunes, the publishers of 'He's So Fine', a 1963 hit for the Chiffons.  In response, Allen Klein (still managing George at this point) suggested that Harrison buy Bright Tunes but the company declined the approach, believing a share of income from 'My Sweet Lord' might generate more money than selling the actual company.

'Hold your bible in your hand' (a still from the promo video for 'This Song')

George took his guitar into the courtroom to demonstrate for those assembled how he had written the song but to no avail.  On 31 August 1976, Judge Richard Owen of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Harrison had "subconsciously" copied the song. In summation Owen asked, 'Did Harrison deliberately use the music of 'He's So Fine'? I do not believe he did so deliberately.  Nevertheless, it is clear that 'My Sweet Lord' is the very same song as 'He's So Fine' with different words, and Harrison had access to 'He's So Fine.' This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished."  With liability established, Harrison was instructed to pay damages to Bright Tunes in the region of $1,600,000.00.

To the amusement of the audience, Sir David told of one further sting in the tale of the 'My Sweet Lord' / 'He's So Fine' debacle.  After John, George and Ringo severed ties with Klein in 1973, Klein took his own advice and bought Bright Tunes, and thus the ownership of 'He's So Fine'! If Harrison needed any further convincing that Paul's suspicions about Klein were correct, then this was surely the moment.   

The litigation inspired 'This Song,' a single taken from George's 1976 album 'Thirty Three and 1/3", the lyrics of which assure the listener that this particular composition has 'nothing Bright about it'. The accompanying video parodies the court case. 

The case was ultimately settled in 1998. Perhaps in recognition of the duplicitous nature of Klein's actions, the rights to both 'He's So Fine' and 'My Sweet Lord' were awarded to Harrison in the UK and North American, and to Klein everywhere else. 

Morris Levy

We then moved straight into another plagiarism suit, this time involving John Lennon and "mob associate" Morris Levy. Levy claimed that the Beatles' 'Come Together' infringed the copyright on Chuck Berry’s 'You Can’t Catch Me', owned by Levy’s publishing company, Big Seven Music. 

It centred on a few lyrical similarities between the two songs. Berry’s “Here come a flat-top he was moving up with me” referred to a convertible, whereas John's “Here come old flat top, he come grooving up slowly” referred to a man who once had a crew cut, but despite the different connotations, the Berry song was clearly the influence on the Lennon song, something Paul McCartney realised as soon as he first heard it. He suggested slowing its pace to reduce the similarity - 'anything you can do to get away from that' - and added a swampy bassline which thickened the disguise. 

Levy saw through it. To stop the case going to court, Lennon agreed to record three of Levy’s classic songs on the album he was currently working on with Phil Spector. Fortuitously this album was a collection of Rock ’n’ Roll oldies and the songs already down on tape would sit comfortably alongside the Levy tracks. All seemed to be going well until Spector walked off with the master tapes and disappeared for several months.

With Rock 'n' Roll currently on hold, John began to record another album which would become 'Walls and Bridges.'  The closing track was a ragged version of 'Ya Ya', one of Levy's Big Seven songs, featuring just John accompanied on drums by his son Julian. When he heard the album, Levy took the impromptu 'Ya Ya' as a slight (and it probably was) and claimed Lennon had reneged on his deal. 

Levy again threatened to sue. Shortly before completing 'Walls and Bridges', Lennon had recovered the Rock 'n' Roll tapes from Spector and he was able to assure Levy that the covers album was still in the works. Again showing his naivety when in the company of hustlers, John gave Levy a “rough mix” of the recordings, as an assurance, telling him: “They’re not the final version of my album. I might have to delete some crummy tracks.” 

Levy took the rough mix tape, and used it to produce an unauthorised, TV advertised album, 'Roots: John Lennon sings the great Rock 'n' Roll hits', claiming that he had a verbal agreement with Lennon. The clash led to a lawsuit and countersuit between them.

On 10 August 1976, the final judgment dismissed the claims against Lennon, awarding over $400,000 in damages against Levy and his company to both Lennon and Capitol/EMI. Lennon's lawyer Jay Bergen would later write that Levy’s bullying had failed spectacularly: “Many executives, artists and managers feared him. His underhand methods and mafia connections were well known. Yet John Lennon had shut him down.” 

After discussing the Beatles protracted attempts to secure better royalty deals and unpaid royalties from EMI and Capitol Records, Mr Foxton concluded his talk with an explanation of the most recent, and perhaps the most interesting lawsuit for the younger members of the audience - the long running case of Apple v Apple, which stretches back almost 40 years. Mr Foxton was only half joking when he said that the legal costs incurred during this litigation had probably helped put the kids of every lawyer involved in the case through University. 

In 1981, the Beatles' (then practically dormant) company Apple Corps (logo: a halved Granny Smith) took on a new electronics company who had the audacity to call itself Apple, or more correctly Apple Computer (logo: a half-munched apple). "What a bloody cheek!" Neil Aspinall, manager of Apple Corps probably said.  

After some sabre-rattling, the fledgling Apple Computer agreed - without the need for a court case - to stay out of music and pay Apple Corps something in the region of £50,000. 

1989 saw more litigation in the orchard. Worried about Apple Computer's expansion, the yet-to-be-nicknamed Threetles took the Californians to court again. Reaching a settlement in 1991, Apple Corps was awarded $26m and the rights to the name on "creative works whose principal content is music" while Apple Computer was allowed "goods and services... used to reproduce, run, play or otherwise deliver such content". 

When the lawsuit was filed in 1989, an Apple Computer employee called Jim Reekes was part of a team working on the company's operating system update, System 7. Reekes had added a sampled system sound called Chimes, which the company's legal department worried would further exacerbate the legal challenge. To our amusement Sir David showed us a screenshot of the operating software (see above) that included Reekes' successfully resubmitted sound file which he had renamed Sosumi, having omitted to point out to the company lawyers that this Japanese-sounding word would be read phonetically as "so sue me". It was clearly intended as a two fingered salute to the Fabs and things were about to get worse.

On April 30, 1993, four years after publishing a proposal for “an idea of linked information systems,” a computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee released the source code for the world's first web browser and editor, or the internet as we know it today, at which point the brown stuff really hit the fan.

In 2003, Apple Corps sued Apple Computer again on the basis that the latter had broken the 1991 voluntary agreement by launching iTunes, the world biggest music downloading store. Apple Corps argued that in opening a music shop and showing the apple logo, Apple Computers had overstepped the mark and entered the music business. 

Clearly Justice Mann was a judge who did not 'get Beatlemania', if I may quote Allen Klein. However he did own an iPod. He ruled that distributing tracks online did not amount to making a musical product, and the Beatles lost. 

In response, Neil Aspinall stated that the company did not accept the decision: "With great respect to the trial judge, we consider he has reached the wrong conclusion. [...] We will accordingly be filing an appeal and putting the case again to the Court of Appeal." The judgment orders Apple Corps to pay Apple Computer's legal costs at an estimated £2 million, but pending the appeal the judge declined Apple Computer's request for an interim payment of £1.5 million.

As an aside, the verdict unintentionally led to a fantastic bit of TV whereby Guy Goma, a job applicant, was mistakenly interviewed about the case live on BBC News 24 after he was confused with computing expert Guy Kewney! 

Mistaken Identity (BBC News 24)

On 5 February 2007, Apple Inc. (Computers) and Apple Corps reached a settlement of their trademark dispute.

Under the terms of the agreement Apple Inc. now own all of the trademarks related to "Apple" and will license certain of those trademarks back to Apple Corps for their continued use (notably the Granny Smith logo). While the terms of the settlement were confidential, newspaper accounts at the time stated that Apple Computer had bought out Apple Corps' trademark rights for a total of $500 million.

Commenting on the settlement, Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs said, "We love the Beatles, and it has been painful being at odds with them over these trademarks. It feels great to resolve this in a positive manner, and in a way that should remove the potential of further disagreements in the future."

Neil Aspinall who was about to retire from his 30 plus years as manager of Apple Corps was quoted saying, "It is great to put this dispute behind us and move on. The years ahead are going to be very exciting times for us. We wish Apple Inc. every success and look forward to many years of peaceful co-operation with them." 

Does that really sound like Neil? I suspect not.

The Beatles catalogue finally appeared on iTunes in 2010.

Consider this; we are now living in a world where Apple the computer company is better known for music than the Beatles' organisation.

Although the subject matter was sometimes a little dry to the extent that at times I felt like I was still at work (Commercial claims and litigation being part of my 'real job') it was a different and entertaining presentation, proving once again that no subject is Beatle-proof.  The evening was rounded off with a drinks reception (of which I was very receptive). and dinner in the Elephant pub in Woolton Village, where John Lennon grew up (in the village, not the pub). 

A very pleasant way to spent a Monday evening.

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