All You Need Is iTunes? – The Beatles Go Digital

It’s been a very long time coming, but it after years of bitter litigation, the Beatles are ready to release their music through Apple’s phenomenally popular iTunes platform.

Apple has a tendency to make a “major announcement” every few months, and the rumour that the Beatles are now finally making their music available for legal download has done the rounds before. What makes this different is that the announcement could have been made just at the right time for EMI and for the Band themselves.

The Beatles are one of the last major artists to release their music digitally, with many pro-downloading campaigners arguing that this has only encouraged widespread file-sharing of the Fab Four’s songs over platforms such as LimeWire and BitTorrent.

Their music is guarded very jealously – In November 2009, Bluebeat.com began streaming the Band’s music for free and sold MP3s of every one of their songs for around 15p –  much less than iTunes’ usual price per track of 79p. As many suspected at the time, Bluebeat were never authorised to sell or stream the Beatles’ music by either EMI (their record label) or Apple Corps, who publish and control how their music is used.

EMI took immediate action, with the files being taken down from Bluebeat’s website just in time for the release of all 14 of the Beatles albums on a specially-produced USB memory stick (along with artwork and video footage) at around £200 that December.

The reason why Music Lawyers are taking an interest in whatever deal is eventually done between Apple and the Beatles is that it has seemed for years as if the deal would never be done.

Apple Inc. and Apple Corps., the Beatles’ Record Label, were involved in an epic court case over Apple Inc.’s use of the “Apple” Branding. Legend has it that George Harrison came across an advertisement for Apple Computers in the mid ’70s and asked the Band’s Lawyers who was using their logo, leading to Apple Corps. suing for Trade Mark Infringement in 1978. The case eventually settling in 1981 after an agreement was reached whereby Apple Inc. would not enter the music business, and Apple Corps would not expand into the computer industry.

The truce lasted until Apple Inc. began to add basic music software to their computers in the early 90s, which led to another round of litigation with the deal being renegotiated to give 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 devices.

Which was fine, until the introduction of iTunes and the iPod? Apple Corps sued for breach of the settlement agreement, but lost on the basis that iTunes merely distributed rather than created music. Apple Corps were set to appeal this decision before the long-running trade mark claim was settled in 2007, with Apple Computers now owning the “Apple” trade marks outright and licensing them to Apple Corps.

After Paul McCartney’s divorce payout to Heather Mills in 2008, there was widespread speculation that an agreement had been reach which would see the Beatles’ catalogue sold via iTunes for a rumoured payment of $400 Million, although talks broke down shortly thereafter.

The amount of money to be made through the digital sale of one of the most popular and iconic Bands of all time is potentially astronomical, even against growing cynicism that most music consumers will have already bought the Beatles’ entire back catalogue in one format or another and won’t need to do so again. However, selling through iTunes could give the Fab Four access to a whole new audience who were previously unwilling to buy whole albums or the recently re-released “Red” and “Blue” Compilations – given that the 50-year copyright on at least some of their work looks set to expire sometime in the middle of the next decade.

Against this backdrop, and given EMI’s troubled history over the past few years following the defection of major artists such as Paul McCartney and Queen as well as fraud litigation in the US between investor Guy Hands and Citigroup, who funded the recent buyout of the label, a deal with iTunes couldn’t be more timely.

The Beatles still remain one of the world’s best-selling bands and are one of EMI’s few remaining crown jewels. Recent attempts at “modernising” the Band’s catalogue have included the release of the “Beatles: Rock Band” Game and the 2009 reissue of all of their digitally-remastered recordings. This is the next logical step in the “long and winding road” of re-launching one of the most valuable catalogues in music.  The Band may not be able to buy love, but it looks as if they may buy a whole new fanbase.

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