Beatles catalog faces uncertainty

Michael Jackson/Sony venture owns song copyrights

Beatles for sale?

The Fab Four's prized catalog -- specifically 267 songs mostly written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney -- is embarking on a long and winding road of ownership uncertainty following the death of Michael Jackson on Thursday.

The pop singer and Sony Music operated a lucrative joint venture that either owns or administers the copyrights to about 750,000 compositions written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers.

Industry analysts estimate that Sony/ATV Music Publishing is worth at least $1 billion, making Jackson one savvy entertainer. His initial investment cost him $47.5 million in 1985. Music publishing is considered a license to print money. Not quite as exciting as the piracy-ravaged recorded-music side, it involves collecting royalties from such diverse avenues as downloads, radio airplay and video games.

But mystery now surrounds the beneficial ownership of Jackson's stake. According to a lawsuit filed in 2002 by a creditor, he secured bank loans totaling $270 million two years earlier using both his Sony/ATV stake and the copyrights to his own songs as collateral.

Jackson lived an extravagant lifestyle, even as his commercial appeal dwindled amid damaging child-abuse allegations and changing music tastes. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2005 that his cash reserves ran so low earlier that year that he worried about paying his electric bill. The paper reported this month that he had racked up about $500 million of debt.

A clearer picture of his finances will emerge during the administration period of his estate that usually lasts about 18 months, said Renee Gabbard of the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Jackson's executors will evaluate his assets, file the estate tax return and invite creditors to submit invoices, said Gabbard, who has a number of wealthy clients with entertainment-related estates.

The process of valuing estate assets, especially intellectual property like music copyrights, is "very complex" and often takes "quite a while,"Gabbard said.

"When you have entertainers and musicians they usually have quite extensive royalty contracts. It's very tough to put a value on a catalog of songs," she said.

Jackson and Sony formed their joint venture in 1995, with the singer contributing ATV Songs, whose 4,000 tunes included most of the Beatles catalog. He had bought ATV a decade earlier from Australian businessman Robert Holmes a Court, famously outbidding McCartney in the process.

Jackson was not involved in the day-to-day operations of Sony/ATV, but as a lover of the songwriting process was known to be "incredibly proud" of the company and its fast growth, according to a publishing industry source.

A spokesman for Sony/ATV declined comment.

His stakes in both Sony/ATV and in Mijac, which holds his own copyrights, were owned by trusts. It was not clear if they were irrevocable or not. If they are revocable, then they could be dismantled to satisfy creditors, Gabbard said.

The estate would first pay federal taxes owed on Jackson's assets, most notably the publishing companies. The remaining assets then would go to satisfy creditors and the balance probably would be placed into separate trusts for his beneficiaries, most likely his children, Gabbard said.

But the publishing industry source said it was too premature to speculate about a possible change in ownership at Sony/ATV, which is run by music industry veteran Martin Bandier.

Additionally, each side is reportedly entitled to make a counter-offer if the other side lines up a buyer, or to bid for the other half it does not own.

The Beatles catalog, meanwhile, just keeps raking in money. The group's CDs will be reissued on Sept. 9, the same day that a Fab Four version of the "Rock Band" video game hits stores.

Dean Goodman contributed to this report.
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