You probably read about the little copyright flare-up that accompanied the recent posthumous release of Michael Jackson’s new single, “This is It.” The song is, apparently, almost identical to an earlier song “I Never Heard,” co-written by Jackson and rock-and-roll legend Paul Anka many years ago but never released. Anka immediately gave an interview in which he was quoted as complaining that he hadn’t been consulted or given his permission, and saying “They have a major, major problem on their hands, [and] they will be sued if they don’t correct it.”
It looked pretty straightforward. When you think about it, though, it’s not at all clear what Anka was complaining about. Jackson’s estate, as co-owner of the copyright, is perfectly within its rights to license the distribution of the song, with or without Anka’s permission or even his knowledge – that’s what copyright co-ownership entitles you to. And secondly — I’m a songwriter, and if I found out that Sony Records released a song that I had co-written with Michael Jackson (ok, it’s a null set, but just suppose . . .), I’d get down on my knees and sing Hallelujah — estimates of the royalties that will accrue as a result of this distribution run into the tens of millions of dollars, and Anka, as co-owner of the copyright, is entitled by law to half of those. Now, I know that Paul Anka is a very rich man, but even very rich men, ordinarily, do not complain about making more money. What was he so upset about?
Apparently, what he was angry about was the omission of his name from the song-writing credits. Understandable, perhaps – but that’s one thing he does not have the right to under the statute – copyright owners do not (with some exceptions not relevant here) have the right to insist on “attribution” of authorship. So the whole thing was pretty strange – he was getting everything he was entitled to under the law, and not getting something he wanted but which he was not entitled to. it makes for a nice copyright hypothetical/exam question — if I didn’t think that some of my Intro to IP students are trolling on this blog, I’d use it myself.