The rule was quite simple, and controversial. Every recording lost its European copyright protection 50 years after it was originally made - regardless of whether it was issued commercially at the time or not. This meant that at the end of 2004 (50 years after 1954), the first batch of Elvis's Sun recordings were essentially up for grabs. The rest of his Sun catalogue followed at the end of 2005; then 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Hound Dog' and dozens of other RCA classics in 2006, 2007 and so on. Once they were out of copyright, they could be released by anyone: artist and original record company alike had no control over this open season.
Those of us who kept track of these things kept saying to each other, "Surely they'll change the law before they get to the Beatles". But as year followed year, it seemed as if the unimaginable was about to happen. The deadline was the end of 2012, at which point all of the Beatles' 1962 recordings (for EMI and at the Star-Club and the Cavern) would slide out of the grasp of EMI and Apple. For decades, the Beatles' archive has effectively kept the EMI empire afloat, through thick times and thin. Now we faced the prospect of seeing the Beatles joining the likes of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington in what is described as 'the public domain'.
To prevent that happening, the Beatles' camp had three options: to challenge the existing rules in court (very unlikely to succeed); to exploit the early Beatles catalogue themselves in such a rigorous way that there was nothing left for the unofficial record companies to gain; or to campaign fiercely for a change in the law. Paul McCartney lent his name and considerable prestige to the crusade to extend the period of copyright from 50 years to 70 - and earlier this month, the European Commission's lawyers announced that they would do exactly that, ensuring that the Beatles (and EMI) kept their hold over the group's back catalogue for another 20 years.
The move was widely greeted as a victory for the artists, although Bob Stanley from the band St Etienne wrote a persuasive challenge to that view in The Guardian. For the fans, though, the ruling was very much a mixed blessing. I imagine that none of us wanted to see the Beatles' catalogue scattered across dozens of incoherent and poorly packaged CDs (or download packages), destroying the integrity of their original albums forever. But just think for a second about what we've missed . . .
Once a bootleg, always a bootleg?
At the end of 2012, we could have seen a comprehensive series of Beatles 1962 repackages, consisting of the entire Star-Club tapes, the Decca audition, and the first few EMI recordings (including any out-takes that had been carefully stored under the mattress by collectors). Fast forward twelve months, and the Beatles collectors of January 2014 could have looked forward to legal (if very much unofficial) box sets of all the 1963 out-takes issued on Anthology and the Ultra Rare Trax series of bootlegs, plus all of the Beatles' BBC recordings from that year, and a healthy round-up of surviving tapes from live shows and TV appearances. We already have the opportunity to purchase every existing tape of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other jazz giants in their prime; as well as box sets of the complete Sun recordings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Now the Beatles would have been set for the same treatment. They (or their estates and lawyers) would have been furious. But wouldn't we, the fans, have been delighted, even if we felt a degree of sympathy for the Fab Four and their widows?
1990 bootleg LP: image bootlegged from audiophileusa.com
Several interesting questions remain unanswered. How soon will the new legislation take force? Will we still get the chance to buy those unauthorised 1962 and 1963 compilations, given that many observers believe the new ruling might not be finalised until 2014? What happens in countries that are not part of the European Union, and where copyright in recordings remains at 50 years? Will the change in the law mean that everything recorded between 1936 and 1960 will fall back into copyright, or will the ruling only affect material from 1961 onwards? And until the new laws are firmly in place, will any unofficial record company be brave (or foolhardy) enough to give a 'legal' (if very shortlived) release to the recordings that John, Paul, George and Stu made at home in 1960, a couple of tracks from which turned up on Anthology? (I first heard them on the Quarrymen Rehearse 1960 LPs in around 1991.) Finally, what will happen in another 20 years' time? I won't be at all surprised to discover in 2031 that the law has been extended again, to make sure that the Beatles' music never falls out of copyright. Some things are simply too valuable to lose.