Nike was sued for this 1987 commercial that used The Beatles song “Revolution” against the wishes of Apple Records. Nike paid $250,000 total to Capitol Records which held the North American licensing rights to The Beatles’ recordings and $250,000 to Michael Jackson who had acquired The Beatles publishing rights in 1985. Nike had the right to use the “Revolution” for a year.
The three surviving Beatles, through their record company Apple, filed a lawsuit in July 1987 for $15 million objecting to Nike’s use of the song. The suit was aimed at Nike, its advertisement agency, Wieden+Kennedy, and Capitol-EMI Records. George Harrison said,
“Every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all. It’s one thing when you’re dead, but we’re still around! They don’t have any respect for the fact that we wrote and recorded those songs, and it was our lives.”
The suit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, charges that the shoe company, Nike Inc., ”wrongfully traded on the good will and popularity of The Beatles,” by using the John Lennon-Paul McCartney song, ”Revolution,” in its advertising. Capitol-EMI countered by saying the lawsuit was ‘groundless’ because Capitol had licensed the use of “Revolution” with the “active support and encouragement of Yoko Ono Lennon, a shareholder and director of Apple.” Ono had expressed approval when the commercial was released, claiming that the commercial,
“is making John’s music accessible to a new generation”
On November 9, 1989, the “Revolution” lawsuit and others involving the Beatles and EMI were settled out-of-court. One condition of the out-of-court settlement was that terms of the agreement would be kept secret. The settlement was reached among the three parties involved: George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr; Yoko Ono; and Apple, EMI and Capitol Records. A spokesman for Yoko Ono noted, “It’s such a confusing myriad of issues that even people who have been close to the principals have a difficult time grasping it. Attorneys on both sides of the Atlantic have probably put their children through college on this.”
Nike discontinued airing ads featuring “Revolution” in March 1988. In 1993, Yoko Ono later gave permission to Nike to use John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” in this ad below.