The Beatles and iTunes just showed us how broken the copyright system is

The group's record label just released The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 to the public. But it was hardly done in the holiday spirit.

The Beatles
(Image credit: (John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images))

This week, fans of The Beatles received an early Christmas present when the group's label, Apple Corps, surprise-released on iTunes a rare, two-hour collection of obscure demos, studio outtakes, and live BBC performances from the band's early mop-top days.

Indeed, The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 has a lot of material for the Fab Four's fans to comb through: 59 raw, unpolished tracks — including three different versions of "From Me to You" — available for the non-bootleg price of $39.99.

But there was much about the release that struck many as odd. Why would a group with a historical imprint like The Beatles go the Beyoncé route and suddenly drop a surprise album out of nowhere? And why is the album an incoherent arrangement of unpolished bootlegs that — quite noticeably — haven't been re-mastered?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

It turns out that the real purpose of the album could be to extend the label's expiring copyright.

As several reports have pointed out, the material's 50-year copyright was up on Jan. 1, 2014. But thanks to an obscure 1993 revision to the European Union's existing copyright laws, releasing the songs to the public — however briefly — grants the label another 20 years of exclusive ownership.

In other words, the songs never enter the public domain, and independent labels can't cobble Beatles recordings together to sell or distribute. (At least not legally.)

Although Apple Corps declined to comment to CNN on its motivations for the surprise Christmas gift, there is some recent historical precedent: Back in January, Sony Records similarly "issued" 100 physical copies of a little-heard Bob Dylan compilation recorded in 1962. Sony's not-so-subtle title?

(via Wikipedia)

Consequence of Sound reports that in some countries, The Beatles' bootleg collection was pulled from iTunes after just a few hours of availability, swaddled anew in another two decades' worth of restrictions and left once again to gather cobwebs.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.