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Did Michael Jackson Have to Approve The Beatles: Rock Band?

This week’s New York Times Magazine has an epic preview of The Beatles: Rock Band , the video game in which you’ll be able to pound plastic instruments to the beat of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” In the article, we learn that all four of the Beatles’ “shareholders” Paul, Ringo, Olivia Harrison, and Yoko Ono gave their blessings to the project in 2008.  But another big name was missing: Michael Jackson. Didn’t M.J. also have to sign off on the project, given his estimated $500 million stake in the Beatles catalog?

No. Jackson wasn’t involved in the decision to license the 45 Beatles songs in Rock Band . That negotiation was handled by Sony/ATV Publishing, the company created to manage the Beatles’ catalog after Jackson sold half of his stake to Sony in 1995. While it’s conceivable that Jackson could have personally nixed the licensing, he was largely a silent partner in Sony/ATV, leaving the day-to-day operations up to company executives. The fact that Jackson had already heavily mortgaged his stake in the company to pay off debts would have made any effort to kill such a lucrative deal improbable.

Jackson didn’t really “own” the Beatles’ catalog, as has been widely reported . What M.J. did control at the time of his death was 50 percent of the composition rights to about 250 songs written by Lennon and McCartney. While these songs add up to nearly the entire Beatles catalog, Jackson’s rights don’t apply to the actual recording of, say, “Revolution” as it appeared on The White Album ; they covered only the composition that particular combination of notes and lyrics that make up the song “Revolution.” (The rights to the recordings are owned by EMI Records.) These rights meant M.J. got royalties if anyone wanted to perform or re-record the song, play it on the radio, or use it in a movie , advertisement or video game . (Paul McCartney recently complained about having to pay up every time he played “Hey Jude” on tour.) Harmonix, the company behind The Beatles: Rock Band , needed those composition rights in order for the songs to appear in a video game, but it also needed rights to the actual recordings not to mention the Beatles’ name and image.