IP, Technology & Data

My favourite band ever is the Beatles. If you start to read up on their history you get a crash course in company law, partnership law, copyright law, trademark law – lots of kinds of law. And hey, the tunes aren’t too shoddy either.

The latest development in Beatles legal wrangles is that an American website named bluebeat.com has been banned from selling the entire Beatles discography for digital download. The songs have never been licensed to anybody to sell online, so it’s unlikely the Beatles would break with this trend to license an obscure company. Bluebeat’s owner, Hank Risan, has justified the site’s actions on the basis that the tracks were “re-recorded” using “psycho-acoustic simulation”, and refers to an “imitation or simulation” loophole in the American Copyright Act. While I can’t speak for US law, I can say for certain that no such loophole exists in the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. (And in any case I’m still fairly sure that this argument won’t stand up to much scrutiny in the US when the parties meet again in court on 20th November.)

So why are the Beatles pretty much the only major artists yet to make available their back catalogue online? The answer is that the Beatles have generated almost as many lawsuits as memorable melodies.

A really abridged history would be as follows. The Beatles float a publishing company Northern Songs on the stock exchange to avoid income tax; Paul McCartney falls out with John Lennon and petitions the court to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership; Apple Corps (the company formed in 1968 to look after the Beatles’ affairs) bicker with their record label EMI over royalty payments; Apple Corps sues Apple Computers for trade mark infringement; Apple Computers agree to stay out of the music business, the controlling stake in Northern Songs is put up for sale (and Michael Jackson outbids Paul McCartney, whose appeal for financial assistance from Yoko Ono is refused); Paul McCartney gets sued by Yoko Ono over royalty arrangements with EMI; Apple Corps sue Apple Computers again when computers are equipped to playback MIDI files; Apple Corps sue Apple Computers (now “Apple Inc”) yet again when ITunes appears; Apple Inc gets rights in Apple trademarks and agrees to license all Apple trademarks back to Apple Corps; Apple Corps sues EMI for money owed from albums sales… and so on.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of Frank Drebbin’s speech in The Naked Gun: “boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.” (Except of course it would be the Apple Bowl, not the Orange Bowl.)

You may have picked up that the biggest dispute is between Apple Corps and Apple Inc – who just happen to be the owner of ITunes, the world’s biggest online-based digital download store. This is the big reason that the Beatles songs aren’t available for digital download. What everyone has been waiting for is something as rare as a bad Beatles tune: a time when the four Beatles (and their widows), both Apple companies and EMI are all in agreement. Things seemed to be going well for the last few years, until McCartney reported that negotiations had got a bit heavy, man.

They all just need to Come Together, With a Little Help From Their Friends and reach The End, of The Long And Winding Road.

(You knew a “song title sentence” had to happen at some point.)

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Martin Sloan

Partner at Brodies LLP
Martin is a partner in Brodies Technology, Information and Outsourcing group and has wide experience of advising clients on technology procurement and IT and business process outsourcing projects. Martin also advises on data protection (including the GDPR), and general technology and intellectual property law, and has a particular interest in the laws applying to social media and new technology such as mobile apps, contactless/mobile payments, and smart metering.
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