European Union’s ‘Use it or Lose it’ Copyright Law Benefits Fans (Kind of)

If there are music fans on your holiday shopping list, it might be easier than ever to get them boxed sets of rarities, B-sides and previously unreleased gems from some of their favourite groups of the 1960s and 70s.

Thanks to a law in the European Union, if recordings aren’t officially and formally released within 50 years of being made, the songs contained therein become public domain. That means the artist who made the recording can’t make as much money, if any, off those songs.

As a result of this law, which was passed just a few years ago, massive acts from the ‘60s and ‘70s including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd are opening up their respective vaults and releasing a treasure trove of tracks that’ve never seen the light of day.

The European Law went into effect in 2012 and states that copyright will be extended from 50 years to 70 years, providing protection for rights holders in excess of the previous law, but only for those recordings published within 50 years of their original recording.  If a recording becomes public domain, by the way, anyone with access to the tapes can release them and profit from the sale of those songs, even if they have no legal binding copyright associated with them.

“So in the case of the Beatles, the group’s 1963 debut album, ‘Please Please Me,’ already benefits from the copyright extension, but the unreleased session tapes —unused versions of the same songs on the album— did not,” the New York Times reported in 2013. “Similarly, the BBC performances released on ‘Live at the BBC’ (1994) and ‘On Air— Live at the BBC, Vol. 2’ (2013)— are protected, but they represented less than half of the 275 performances the Beatles recorded for the BBC between 1962 and 1965.”

Bands are trying to honour the requirements of the law and protect their copyrights by formally releasing these recordings, but they’re doing so in limited amounts, selling a smaller-than-normal number of copies in order to keep the tracks rare. Only 100 copies of a Bob Dylan album, recorded in  1963, were released when it was facing loss of copyright in 2013 and the album’s name itself was purposely similar to an album recorded in 1962 and released in 2012.

And it’s possible some of the tracks included on these special release aren’t gems at all but inferior outtakes from studio sessions.

On the other hand, hearing how a favourite, instantly recognizable song developed over time might matter more to a die-hard, devoted, completionist fan in the long run.

Among this year’s releases are Leonard Cohen’s Leeds 1970; Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Cincinnati, February 25th, 1970; Genesis, Belgium, March 7, 1971; Elton John, Santa Monica, November 15, 1970 and The Who, New York, April 6, 1968, according to Rolling Stone. Keep your eyes open for these releases—The Beatles released The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 on iTunes for just a few hours, but it was enough to count as publishing the records and therefore protect their copyright.

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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