What do I do with my unreleased Beatles recording?

Bulldog Records in Italy had a jolly slogan “It was more than 20 years ago” back when Italian copyright law only protected foreign music for 20 years. 

WogBlog has been hit by a lot of traffic coming from the general media, since we’ve both been quoted from and linked to a lot lately. One of the people who found our little hideaway on the internet was the keeper of a unique Beatles recording, and he wrote us an email, asking what to do with it.

We’ve tried to reply as best we could, and in the cause of this we have been thinking about how this change in copyright law in Europe will affect these kinds of recordings.

To start with, a short recap of the current European law on copyright of recorded music:

A) If it has been released, it is protected for 70 years from the year of release.

B) If it is unreleased, it is protected for 50 years from year of recording.

A and B becomes public domain after that. Once there, they can not be copyrighted again.

Before the new law was passed in November 2013, the limit was 50 years in both instances.

So, as of now (December 2013), anything published in 1962 or earlier is in the public domain, whether it has been previously released or not.

However, recordings from 1962 or earlier which has been published some time later in the 50 years from 1962-2012 are protected from the year it was published.

To explain this, take the case of the Decca audition tape. Recorded in 1962, expires in 2012. Except that the Beatles published five of the tape’s fifteen songs on Anthology 1 in 1995. So those songs are protected for 70 years, counting from 1995. In this example, anyone can make a CD of the remaining ten tracks and sell it for profit. The Beatles missed the boat on that one. If they had done like Bob Dylan and released unreleased stuff like the full Decca Tape in 2012, the Anthology Decca tracks would be protected by copyright until 2065 and the rest would have remained in copyright until 2082.

This is just an example, I haven’t speculated if inclusion of snippets from the other Decca tracks found on the Anthology DVD series could have extended copyrights of these songs further.

So what do you do with the recording you inherited from your dad?

Let’s say someone recorded a Beatles concert in 1964. The tape has survived all these years, it’s okay in the sonic department, you can hear the screaming fans  – but also the songs, and John and Paul speaking between songs. The concert tape would be somewhat attractive to fans.

As I see it there are four options.

1. You could keep things as they are, and enjoy owning the tape for yourself.

2. You could offer your tape for sale.

3, You could release it on CD some time after 01.01.2015 yourself or via an established record label.

4. You could put up sound files of the concert on the internet after 01.01.2015 and share them freely with anyone.

Should you consider options 3 or 4, to release the taped concert some time in the future, free or otherwise, it needs to be transferred to digital files.
Even if you chose option 1 or 2, having the concert in a digital format will be more convenient. You could make a CD or sound files for your own enjoyment in option 1, and in option 2 you could offer potential buyers the chance to listen to free samples.

Of course, you could also start manufacturing CDs yourself and start selling them on the internet or via mail order without the aid of a record label, but there are some snags. Since the contents of the tape will be in the public domain, there is no need to pay anyone anything for the performance itself, but there are other fees involved that will apply, like royalties on publishing rights etc . I don’t have a complete overview of these, but partnering with a record company will take care of that part of the business. 

Since you are in possession of the sole copy of the tape, and as such it will not be released by anybody else, under current EU laws, after 01.01.1965 the performance captured on the tape will fall into the public domain.

This is somewhat of a double-edged sword, because it means that you can release it yourself, but after that, so can anybody.  So if you reach an agreement with a record label and start to manufacture CDs, anybody can then buy the CD and start making his own CD copies and sell them… Still, for a limited time, it’s possible to make a profit on initial sales, I suppose.

To maximize these initial profits, you will of course also have to shell out for a big advertising campaign – unless you are already directly in touch with the online communities who are the main potential customers.

So, if I had such a recording, I probably would try to sell it (after having made a recording of it for myself). And I would think that I would get more from it via an international auction house, during one of their entertainment memorabilia auctions. They are attracting a different, more “high-brow” crowd than ebay auctions. The recording’s uniqueness is likely to attract more than one bidder, and a bidding war will up the price.

Until The Beatles/Universal Music decide to release a few live Beatles concerts, there will be a demand for a complete Beatles concert to be available. Mainly because Apple/Beatles haven’t bothered to take their 1977 LP/cassette release “The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl” into the digital domain as a CD or a download.

However, hot-on-the-heels of today’s release “Bootleg Recordings 1963”, we heard whispers of more to come – even before Christmas. Stay tuned….

11 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    A minor correction. The Decca songs that were on Anthology 1 are protected for 70 years. Not 50.

  2. wogew says:

    No, the law was passed this November and doesn't affect previous releases.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think it does affect previous releases. Because if not it would mean that the "Please Please Me" Album would be public domain by now.
    The cutt-off date is December 31, 1962. Everything released after that is protected for 70 years. That's why "Love Me Do" is now in the public domain and "Please Please Me" is not.

  4. Chris Brown says:

    My understanding is that it does affect previous releases (and that this is one reason the industry hurried the govt into enacting the law now). But nothing that's already public domain will revert so the original 'Love Me Do' stays as it is. I did see some unofficial downloads of the first abum which were presumably calculating the 50 years from the exact release date rather than the year ed, but I believe this is incorrect.

    However, weren't the Decca auditions released by Decca themselves much earlier than 1995? If so they're protected from that original release date not from 1995. And if not why not?

  5. david_b says:

    So, to break it down for me, based on current law, exactly when does McCartney (and Lennon's estate..) get rights to his songs again..?

    Obviously he doesn't want to buy 'em for this reason.

    Thanks much.

  6. Unknown says:

    Read this – This is the official guidance from the UK government


    As far as i can see from that document The Decca tracks released in 1995 will be covered for 70 years from the date of publishing, it has nothing to do with when they were recorded. If the recordings were issued within 50 years then the copyright date runs from the date of issue.

    The law affects all releases. All recordings released post 1963 are now covered for 70 years.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Richard Moore: "The law affects all releases. All recordings released post 1963 are now covered for 70 years."

    It's everything post 1962. Otherwise "Please Please Me" and "With The Beatles" would be public domain next year.
    The law says: "The extended term applies to all sound recordings that are protected by copyright
    on 1st November 2013."
    Sound recordings that "are protected by copyright
    on 1st November 2013" would have to be released after December 31, 1962.

  8. Foxx says:

    What I understnd from this discussion is that UNRELEASED tapes are protected for 50 years. Publication after 51 years does not help. They will be public Domain and remain so. But: issuing these on (say) cd does involve some remixing etc, if only to get from 4-track to stereo. Can it not be argued that this process creates Something NEW (accident pun) which wil have protection for 70 years after publication?

  9. Unknown says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. david_b says:

    Soooo, McCartney has to wait another 20yrs to have the rights returned to him..?

    Obviously this affects some of George's contributions (before Harrisongs..?) and Lennon's estate..?

    Sorry, just trying to see it in plain english.

    Thanks much guys.

  11. Unknown says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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