Will the Beatles finally join the Digital Revolution?

After years of bitter litigation, it now looks as if both apples are now ready to be sold from the same cart. Rumours suggest that the Beatles are finally coming to iTunes, with an announcement widely expected to take place later today.

The Band has long been one of the last major artists to hold out from making their music available through iTunes, and many pro-downloading campaigners have argued that this approach has led to widespread filesharing of the Fab Four’s songs. However, with today’s worldwide re-release of the digitally-remastered versions of the Beatles’ back catalogue coinciding with what a press conference for what Apple have described as a “music-focused media event” and the release of the new “Beatles Rock Band” game, many are speculating that some of the most iconic music of the 20th century may now finally find its way online. 

Many music fans and media lawyers thought, and some still do think, that the Beatles’ songs will never end up being sold through iTunes, and with a very good reason.

Apple Inc. and Apple Corps., the Beatles’ Record Label, have had a fraught relationship over the years which led to a very long-running court case over Apple Inc.’s use of the “Apple” Branding. Legend has it that George Harrison came across an advertisement for Apple Computers and asked who was using their logo, which led to Apple Corps. suing for Trade Mark Infringement in 1978, with the case eventually settling in 1981 after the two sides reached an agreement whereby Apple Inc. would not enter the music business and Apple Corps would not enter the computer business.

This lasted until Apple Inc. added rudimentary music software to their computers in the early 90s, which led Apple Corps. to sue again and a refinement of the deal between them giving Apple Corps the right to use “Apple” on “creative works whose principal content is music” and Apple Inc. the right to use “Apple” on “goods or services used to deliver such content”, but not for any physical musical materials.

Enter iTunes and the iPod, which reignited tensions between the two via a claim for breach of contract. Apple Corps lost this case on the basis that iTunes merely distributed music rather than created it. Apple Corps were then set to appeal the judgment before the ongoing trade mark claim was settled in 2007, with Apple Computers now owning the “Apple” trade marks and licensing them back to Apple Corps. This fuelled speculation in 2008 that Sir Paul McCartney had brokered a deal which would see the Beatles’ catalogue sold via iTunes to the tune of a rumoured $400 Million, although Apple Computers denied it, with discussions apparently reaching an impasse late last year.

Both sides clearly recognise that there is a vast amount of money to be made through selling the music of arguably the most popular and influential band of all time via iTunes, and after Led Zeppelin and Metallica (some of the other major hold-outs) finally reached agreements to make their back catalogues available, surely it’s now only a matter of time before the Beatles do the same. No-one could have foreseen iTunes’ popularity when it launched and selling the Beatles’ music through the platform will allow them to reach a whole new audience and for them to make royalties through licensing the copyright in them for years to come. As far as the trade mark case was concerned, it could have gone either way, but as a deal has now been reached, both sides stand to make a serious amount of money.

In any event, a deal would allow the surviving Beatles to severely curtail the need for their fans to download their music illegally. That may be the next dispute that the Beatles find themselves involved in; if their songs now become available for legal download through Apple, then we may see their Lawyers clamping down on illegal sites which host their music to ensure that the value in the Back Catalogue is protected.  It’s no coincidence that the rumoured digital release is coming as the Band’s early releases are nearing the end of their protection by copyright, which expires 50 years after the recording of the original song. Following this timeline, the Copyright in 1962’s “Love Me Do” will expire in 2012. Moves are being made to extend this period, mainly after calls from Musicians who made their name in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that they should be able to make an income from their music via the huge number of new methods which have become available over the last 20 or so years.

What this goes to show is exactly how valuable the Beatles are as a Brand, even 45 years after they first came to prominence. The deal to use their songs in the new “Beatles Rock Band” Game shows that not only is this the case, but that older artists could well see their music now finding a similar new lease of life as new technologies and methods of exploiting the copyright and related rights in their music and image become available. AC/DC and Metallica have already lent their music to the “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” Franchises, and despite comments from Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman that the phenomenally popular Video Game franchises may deter the stars of the future from picking up real instruments, they probably won’t be the last to do so. The makers of Guitar Hero have already come out against these suggestions, claiming that the game actually inspires their audience to learn to play after seeing how rewarding it can be.

It will certainly be rewarding for the Fab Four.  A whole new generation could now discover their music, and it’s unlikely that the surviving Beatles will be singing “Don’t Bring Me Download” or “Can’t Buy Me Copyright” any time soon.

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