Did Litigation Do What Yoko Couldn't?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What brought down the biggest and greatest rock band of all time? It wasn't Yoko Ono, despite what you might have heard. It may have been litigation however, as the Beatles were dogged by a series of lawsuits and legal missteps virtually from the band's founding.

That's Stan Soocher's take on it, at least. Soocher, an entertainment attorney, recently published "Baby You're a Rich Man: Suing the Beatles for Fun and Profit," which was excerpted in the May issue of the ABA Journal. The Beatles' early legal troubles meant that the band "found themselves on the losing side of battles over nearly every aspect of their business," Soocher writes. And those ill-fated battles stretched on long after the band had split.

Early Mismanagement Casts a Long Shadow

The Beatles' big break came in November, 1961, when Brian Epstein saw them perform in Liverpool. Epstein quickly became the group's full-time manager and after a few short years, Beatlemania was in full swing. But Epstein, who'd previously been working as a record store operator, wasn't much of a manager -- at least when it came to licensing and merchandising.

Neither Epstein or his attorney, David Jacobs, were experienced in negotiating merchandising agreements and they soon entered into a licensing agreement with Nicky Byrne that was "as lopsided as it was ill advised," Soocher writes. Epstein eventually sued Bryne over his U.S. merchandising, eventually settling the case and agreeing to pay "a hefty portion" of the legal fees "out of his own pocket." The result: John, Paul, George, and Ringo would have made just $10,275 on Byrne's U.S. merchandising royalties -- at a time when Beatles merchandise was everywhere.

And Then There Was Klein

Of course, not all of the band's legal problems were a result of Epstein's mismanagement. After Epstein died of a drug overdose, the Beatle's formed their own company, Apple Corps. To help manage their finances, they brought on Allen Klein, an accountant and the manager for the Rolling Stones -- a choice they'd later regret.

Paul McCartney, who'd objected to Klein from the get go, sued the rest of the band in 1970, with the aim of removing Klein. This was, Soocher notes, "the beginning of the end" for the group. The remaining Beatles sued Klein and Apple ended up paying Klein $4.2 million to get rid of him.

That was hardly the last the Beatles heard from Klein, however. After the group had split, Klein worked with George Harrison on his charity concert for Bangladesh. Except Klein forgot to obtain nonprofit status for the event, leading to years of tax litigation. Then, Klein later sued Harris for control of his music. He even attempted to secure an infringement judgement over Harrison's hit "My Sweet Lord," which had reached number one when Klein was still Harrison's manager.

The dispute wasn't resolved until 1998, and by that time Harrison was already caught in another legal battle, now with Klein's replacement. That dispute stretched out until just before Harrison's death in 2001.

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