Legal Thriller: Michael Jackson vs. Paul McCartney vs. Sesame Street Parodies

August 1, 2013

The story of how Michael Jackson ruined a friendship but saved Sesame Street in the process.

sesame street parodiesOne of the reasons why Sesame Street has remained on the air for more than 40 years is because it appeals both to young children and the parents who watch it with them. And because producers know parents are watching, the show features guest appearances from stars that kids wouldn’t know but adults would, like Tina Fey or Jon Hamm, and educational songs that are parodies of well-known pop songs. In the ‘70s, for example, “Bruce Stringbean and the S. Street Band” performed “Born to Add,” a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

One of the most famous Sesame Street parodies ever: “Letter B,” a spelling-centric parody of the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” as performed in 1983 by a group of Muppet musicians with mop-top haircuts called “The Beetles.”

Under a copyright law called “Fair Use,” parodies may be recorded and released without securing permission from the song’s copyright owner. At the time “Let It Be” was controlled by a music publishing company called Northern Songs. In 1981, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, along with Yoko Ono, widow of ex-Beatle John Lennon, attempted to buy Northern Songs, so McCartney and Lennon’s family could own the Beatles songbook. The deal fell through.

A couple years later, McCartney collaborated with Michael Jackson on the hit “Say, Say, Say.” Jackson had just made a ton of money from the success of his Thriller album and asked McCartney for financial advice. McCartney told him to invest in music publishing. Jackson did—in 1985, he purchased Northern Songs, and bought McCartney’s songs out from under him.

Jackson inherited one other thing from Northern Songs: a nasty lawsuit. Northern Songs was in the process of suing Children’s Television Workshop for $5.5 million. Reason: copyright infringement over “Letter B.” CTW is a nonprofit group, and a payout of that magnitude likely would have crippled the company and led to the end of Sesame Street, a beloved TV show around the world, and credited with helping millions of children learn to read.

While the purchase of the Beatles’ catalog permanently soured Jackson’s friendship with McCartney (they never collaborated or even spoke again), Jackson at least did one nice thing—immediately after the deal finalized in 1985, he cancelled the lawsuit. Children’s Television Workshop paid $50 to settle the case, which “Letter B” songwriter Christopher Cerf paid himself.

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August 1, 2013 12:53 pm

I saw the last name Cerf and wondered if he was related to Bennett Cerf. He is!
Cool Beans!

August 9, 2013 10:48 pm

It’s too bad that Jackson was scum, obsessed with children… Who was happy to screw over McCartney… It is no surprise he was willing to save the show..

April 23, 2014 4:19 pm

Like an angel he saved the show! Long live king of pop!

Mol Or
November 20, 2014 3:15 pm

he was far from being a scum and he wasn’t obsessed with children he spent his entire life yes not just adult life he started it when he was a kid to help kids, particularly those who were sick and injured. Yeah what a scum he was to save lives to give 300 million to charities all over the world to fix orphanages to visit hospitals to cheer sick kids up. I wish everyone was that “obsessed” with kids. This would be a much better world. He didn’t screw Paul Paul simply didn’t bid on the catalog while he knew… Read more »

November 20, 2014 4:44 pm

drsmooth, you might try to get your head out of the tabloids. Jackson was never scum, and it’s not at all surprising that he would drop the crippling lawsuit against a child programming nonprofit of Sesame Street’s calibre. He truly cared about the wellbeing of children and that has become more clear with each passing day since his death as more and more facts come to light. It’s lore among some Beatles fans that Jackson somehow practically stole their catalog from under “Sir” Paul’s nose. The reality is that McCartney did not want to pay the asking price and Jackson… Read more »

November 20, 2014 7:02 pm

Insiders some who have no love for Jackson admits Paul had first shot at buying the Catalogue. He was too cheap and turned it down. Only when Brits & Beatles Fans started complaining about Jackson buying did he get involved. Paul like others, has spent decades playing the victim letting a lie flourish. And people like drsmooth August 9, 2013, have spent decades promoting this knowing it and others are lies.

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