Early Beatles recordings might have entered public domain, but, a new complaint alleges, major labels could still be in control.
In Canada, until very recently, sound recordings were protected by copyright for 50 years, after which time, they’d fall into public domain. This national kink in intellectual property law explains why a company called Stargrove Entertainment was able to chart one of Walmart Canada’s best-selling albums at the beginning of 2015 with a $5, 11-song CD called Love Me Do by The Beatles. The CD was sold at a much cheaper price point than any of Universal Music’s Beatles offerings, while the publishing rights holders were still paid due royalties. The company was in varying stages of doing the same with early material from the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys (now, also in public domain).
Then, quickly, they were made to stop.
In a 408-page complaint filed Tuesday with the Canadian Competition Tribunal, Stargrove claims to have been blocked by industry giants Universal and Sony. While the recordings themselves have been opened up to the public, the compositions are still subject to publishing rights which must be cleared with the title holders (publishing companies, like Casablanca and ABKCO, who are often distributed by or otherwise affiliated with the Majors). In the filing, Stargrove says that such licenses are usually granted automatically, but the publishers at once decided to stop issuing licenses on the requested material and refunded its royalty payments, artificially extending the copyright over material that should be public.
The complaint suggests collusion between the publishing and recording wings of major labels so they might control price and exclusivity, alleging that Universal Music Canada then-CEO Randy Lennox went so far as to e-mail Stargrove’s largest distributor to dump Stargrove and partner with Universal so they might resolve, what he called, the “public domain issue.” Stargrove also alleges that Universal Music employees published false reviews about the quality of their products online to dissuade potential customers.
This comes after the June 2015 decision, when — lobbied heavily by the recording industry, as University of Ottawa Law Professor Michael Geist writes — the Canadian government amended the Copyright Act to protect works for 70 years, siding with the interests of the Majors, who stand to benefit most from the extension.
As sweet and democratic an ideal as public domain might be, a $5 Beatles album, it seems, is still out of the question.