by Mike Hansen
U.S. copyright law tends to revolve around ensuring that Disney continues to own Mickey Mouse in perpetuity (along with Warner Brothers clinging tenaciously to Superman and Batman, Marvel to Captain America, etc.). In Europe, it seems to be all about its music superstars.
Today, Rolling Stone reported something sure to annoy 99.999999999999% of Bob Dylan fans: about 100 copies of an official 4-CD, 86-song Bob Dylan box set of 1962 outtakes (Dylan’s first year with Columbia Records, now owned by Sony Music).
“This isn’t a scheme to make money,” a Sony Music source tells Rolling Stone. “The copyright law in Europe was recently extended from 50 to 70 years for everything recorded in 1963 and beyond. With everything before that, there’s a new ‘Use It or Lose It’ provision. It basically said, ‘If you haven’t used the recordings in the first 50 years, you aren’t going to get any more.’”
So even though Sony doesn’t intend to make money from these recordings (most of which are widely available on bootleg), it wants to ensure that they don’t enter the public domain so they can be freely copied and shared. Really? Is Sony that afraid of having to compete with anyone’s ability to package, release, and distribute the material in a manner of their choosing?
Bob Dylan’s 1962 debut LP became a part of the European public domain on January 1st, meaning anybody in Europe can release the music without paying Dylan one dime. “The whole point of copyrighting this stuff is that we intend to do something with it at some point in the future,” says the source. “But it wasn’t the right time to do it right after he released Tempest. There are other things we want to do in 2013 though.”
Oh, okay: so Sony DOES intend to make money off it. LATER. So they’re lying. Classy!
I’m all for compensating artists for their work, but these are recordings that sat on the shelf for over 50 years while the artist and record company made no effort to make a penny off them. And instead of just allowing the material to become public-domain (like Dylan’s first album and, I assume, the Beatles’ earliest recordings), Sony released just *100* copies of the material to protect its copyright while ensuring that virtually 0% of Bob Dylan fans will actually (legally) hear the material. In a business where record labels routinely underpay their artists (and overpay their executives), this is simply a corporate move to hold onto property it doesn’t care about, just in case it might be worth a few dollars later. This doesn’t benefit the artist; it doesn’t benefit the consumer; and it doesn’t benefit the corporate behemoth greedily clutching the rights. What’s the point?
According to the New York Times, it looks like only Dylan fans in France and Germany can legally download this material from the artist’s website. What?
… Sony is not alone. Universal, which owns the Motown catalog, has released a series of jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues albums under the rubric “Motown Unreleased 1962,” which makes a large body of its unissued archives eligible for the European copyright extension.
Wow. If this isn’t abuse of copyright law, I don’t know what is. It’s no wonder music fans continue to use extralegal methods to acquire music. This is Exhibit A for why copyright law needs to be amended for the benefit of creators and the public, instead of for corporations that behave like mental patients.