Would It Really Be So Bad If The Beatles Were In The Public Domain?

from the probably-not dept

In our earlier coverage of Friday’s hearings on how to fix the broken setup for copyrights on pre-1972 recordings, there was one point that I skipped over, because I thought it deserved a more focused discussion. In trying to make the point in favor of the RIAA’s belief that the longer the copyright, the better, Jennifer Pariser pointed out that the best selling album from two years ago was The Beatles box set, and she asked: “Are we saying that should be in the public domain?”

Clearly, the point she was trying to make was that you never know what amazing works of history the major labels are suddenly going to dredge up and repackage in a profitable way — and that’s the reason why such works should remain under copyright (and under the control of the major labels) for as long as is humanly possible.

But does this make any sense?

I don’t think so, and I think that a very strong argument can be made that things would have been just dandy if The Beatles’ tunes had been in the public domain at the same time. The specific work that Pariser is referencing is The Beatles Stereo Box Set, which was released with a ton of fanfare in September 2009, at the same time as The Beatles in Mono box set, and The Beatles: Rock Band. And while it sold well, many people complained (reasonably) that they were basically offering the same songs all over again, in the RIAA’s never-ending quest to make you keep on buying the stuff that you’ve already bought. In fact, many of the buyers almost certainly had all the works already. So why did they still buy it? Because the set itself was historic, complete and collectible in all sorts of ways that made it worth buying for fans of The Beatles.

The amount of work that went into making some of the early mono recordings stereo was apparently incredible, and the box set included a ton of valuable extras, including a DVD with narration from all four of The Beatles. There was additional footage from recording sessions, photo sessions and various other features as well. In other words, there were many reasons why people bought this box set, but I’d argue that access to the music wasn’t near the top of most people’s lists. They already had much of the music.

Furthermore, let’s assume that The Beatles’ works were in the public domain in 2009. Could EMI have still made a ton of money on such a box set? You bet. Again, by noting that it was the official version, remastered from as much original material as possible, and including all sorts of extras from The Beatles themselves, it means that there would be all sorts of reasons to buy the official version. If anything, having the recording be in the public domain might have resulted in more people working on attempts to turn the mono recordings into stereo recordings, which could have made such a box set available sooner, as EMI could have benefited from the work of others in the public domain as well.

The problem, yet again, is that Pariser and the RIAA keep pretending that the only reason people buy is directly for the recording. That’s simply not true. They’re also pretending that you can’t make money from the public domain, which is also totally untrue. What bothers me is that Pariser and the RIAA are making these obviously untrue statements to policy makers, who might not be sophisticated enough to know that these statements are untrue.

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Comments on “Would It Really Be So Bad If The Beatles Were In The Public Domain?”

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DannyB (profile) says:

Re: One word

Taking your point to its logical conclusion, since copyright is forever, and most art is built on past art, eventually all art will be:
* illegal (infringement of something else, somewhere, somehow)
* underground
* freely copied on the Internet

If you don’t think so, then I’d ask if anyone can name a present day artform that this has already happened to?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: One word

Keep in mind the huge number of copyright lawsuits that have a chance of winning, but are never filed. After all, some judges like to ignore fair use. Record companies don’t file more suits because there’s mutually assured destruction with other record companies and individual artists don’t have enough money to make lawsuit gambling profitable.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: One word

Face it, the Beatles are in the public domain already. The only thing copyright prevents, is other artist’s interpretations of music being sold in a tangible form.

Sometimes I’m thankful for copyright maximalists. A shitload of stuff that would otherwise be charged for gets put out free instead.

And that also scoots around any sales/VAT taxes, which amuses me.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

This is a significant issue I have with “magnanimous” rich people. They basically steal from consumers by charging too much and getting the government to enforce monopolies and then they give a small portion back and want to be praised for it.

I’d rather have the discretion for my money to go to charity and get my public domain works for free (maybe 5 or 10 years after creation) and bypass the greedy bastards who take quite a bit off the top before donating.

Rob (profile) says:

Reverse fair use?

If the Beetles were public domain, would that force something like the Grey Album to be public domain as well? or would that be transformative enough to be able to be copyrighted for X years? Seems like this could get confusing really fast.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for limiting the copyright term to something reasonable (smaller than what we have today). This is just a thought that crossed my mind as I was reading the article.

Just Thinking says:

If their music was in the public domain, lets say because copyright was only for 10 years, it might have changed the history of music.

Perhaps the record label wouldn’t have been able to invest in their recording, promotion, and support of the little band from Liverpool who were making their livings with day jobs and some gigs in night clubs. Perhaps we would never have heard of the Beatles, never enjoyed the true talents of Lennon and MacCartney. They instead could have been a milkman and a office worker, as their past suggested.

It’s impossible to know, because changing such a large variable in the business model would in turn change the decisions made by everyone involved.

sheenyglass (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually, the Beatles really started to become great playing in the Hamburg clubs. The non-stop performing lead to a great deal of improvement in their musical skills and ability to gel as a band.

What were they playing? Cover songs. So if they had been forced to write their own songs from the beginning, there would be no Beatles.

Also the “true talents of Lennon and McCartney” is just begging for an Ebony and Ivory joke.

sheenyglass (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

My point is that the ability to use other artists work is integral to the development of new artists. Increasing the amount of work in the public domain makes it easier for artists to use this work and augments the development of new artists.

The tradition of covering existing songs predates copyright by thousands of years. Melodies were reused with new lyrics, old songs would have new arrangements. This borrowing is particularly important in the blues, from which the rock and pop practiced by the Beatles evolved. Since the blues, like other vernacular musical genreas, was developed pre-1976, the vast majority of its foundations were already in the public domain. Without a culture of permission-free borrowing blues and the pop and rock which came from it would not exists.

sam sin says:

in other words, the policy makers are as thick as fuck and the RIAA are taking advantage of that. wonder what (if anything) will happen when these policy makers realise just how much piss is being taken out of them by the RIAA? will they be so ashamed of themselves, so humiliated, to do anything in retaliation? no way! that would only make them look even more ridiculous than they already do!

Mr. Smarta** says:

They *were* something... not now.

The Beatles are old news. Sure, they were good in their day. But the Revolution has been over for a long time. The music just isn’t that good anymore when compared to today’s artists. The only place that music belongs is where all the other old artifacts wind up… in a museum. Or in this case, in public domain.

Chalk up one more band that’s old news, and let future generations hear it as if it’s history… which it is.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

How much money have publishers made over the years selling Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Scarlet Letter to high school and college students? The difference is that a lot of different people can do the publishing now, and the new publishers do add their own touches to make their works more competitive and desirable. That can be in the form of things like new illustrations and more modern formatting.

Granted, in most cases it is a different person or organization who is making the profit on the public domain work. But that is exactly what the authors of the constitution had in mind when they wrote the constitution. Authors and publishers have lots of opportunity to profit from the work for a short period (that is essentially what the Constitution says) and then the public gets access to the material. They can consume it or repackage the work creatively and make more profit.

Once a work goes into the public domaint, the original publishers are free to continue making a profit; the only thing that changes is that they no longer have a government-enforced monopoly. The original owners may still have assets that let them continue to be unique. The Beatles case is an example of this. If the Beatles had gone PD before the box set was released, the labels still could have released the videos, pictures, and other items that is of interest to fans. That still would have made the box set unique.

F. Robert Earl says:

Re: Everyone but the authors

You say that the publishers make money? Sure. And I buy your point about innovation and competition between publishers. But how about the artists? Don’t they deserve some cut? That won’t happen if it’s in the public domain. The publishers won’t pay for what they can get for free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Everyone but the authors

Well, the RIAA and the MPAA and the likes are 100% comprised of artists, and they lobby for beneficial copyright laws, so yeah, artists are special. Just like corporations. Dead artists are the most special of all, they get rights that not even the living are afforded!

Dave (profile) says:

Re: Re: Everyone but the authors

But how about the artists? Don’t they deserve some cut?

I hate the word deserve. The answer to any question about whether or not someone ‘deserves’ something is no.

Now if they can also figure out how to market their works and then people pay them for that, then I would say they’ve earned something.

Bill Benzon (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Everyone but the authors

I hate the word deserve. The answer to any question about whether or not someone ‘deserves’ something is no.

Oh how cute… Do criminals deserve to be punished? Do laborers deserve to be paid? Do humans deserve the right to life? Do you deserve the right to have children and raise them as you’d like? Do customers deserve a peaceful movie-viewing experience when they’ve paid full admission? Do I deserve to be fed by a restaurant when I pay them money up front?

You might want to think about stepping back from your hate for a word (How empty does it feel to hate an abstract representation?)

And your statement is misleading. Of course you do get paid for work you did 10 years ago, you were most likely paid in full 10 years ago. (That, I can’t believe I have to explain this, was your cut of the profits. If the company you worked for didn’t project profits from your work, they wouldn’t have hired you) The life you lead now directly descends from the capital you earned back then. Authors don’t get paid in that manner. The Beatles weren’t given “living wages” while they wrote and recorded music.

freak (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Everyone but the authors

“Do criminals deserve to be punished?”
No. In fact, we shouldn’t punish them; we should separate the harmful ones from society and help and heal them so that they can rejoin normal society. Punishing costs money and accomplishes nothing. Healing helps us understand ourselves better, as well as them, is cheaper, and in the end has a net economic benefit.

“Do laborers deserve to be paid?”
If I help a friend move, do I deserve to get paid? No.
If I help a pretty girl with her studies, do I deserve something ‘extra’? No.
Sure, in each of those circumstances the friend/girl might wish to incentive me to help again, but unless it was specifically agreed to beforehand, there would be no obligation to provide said incentive. In those circumstances, it would usually be considered socially awkward to expect or want payment of any sort, (The guy expecting sexual favours for studying would be a creep, IMO), but did I not labour?

“Do humans deserve the right to life?”
I don’t think so, no. However, I would grant you the right to live if you do so for me as well, and the same for everyone else; anyone who disagrees we can lock up in jail so they won’t take our lives, and we can offer them help and healing so that if they accept said help they can understand and live with us peacefully and beneficially for all.

“Do you deserve the right to have children and raise them as you’d like?”
Oh hell no. Me and the GF are very clear on the no children thing; But just in case we have children, our first boy would be called “Laser Shark Dumptruck”, and our first girl would be called “Pixie Fairydust Tinkerbell”. They would love us until they were ten.

“Do customers deserve a peaceful movie-viewing experience when they’ve paid full admission?”
You realize all it takes to disprove this is one theatre where that is allowed? There is such a one in my city. Once a week on thursday, they show mostly old b-movies from which they can take a higher profit % and encourage people to loudly snark it. It only seats 3 dozen or so, but there’s always a few standing, and it’s always a great time.

“Do I deserve to be fed by a restaurant when I pay them money up front?”
No, but the restaurant probably would want to, because your complaining would chase away more customers than just yourself from going to the restaurant again.

Now, rather than merely providing a list of examples I believe show the inadequacy of the idea of “deserves”, I will clarify a little bit. The idea of anyone deserving anything is flawed because it depends on everyone having a universal idea of what is fair and what isn’t. We don’t have such an idea. The idea also goes right to shit when you realize people are merely products of their genes and their experiences, so they really don’t ever deserve anything, good or bad, merely for being a product of the environment.

What we have instead is a complex interworking of ideas of social relationships that allow us to deal with each other in terms that both of us feel are fair even when we might otherwise disagree because we interpret the relationship between each other differently from the other person, thus letting us view the deal in a way that seems fair.

But as I said before, the girl may wish to offer him something, (probably not sex), if she wants to him to help her study again. And the employer wants to pay his employees if he wants them to work for him again, (or anyone else for that matter). And the theatre wants to quiet down and throw out its rowdy customers because most of its customers don’t enjoy that and they would leave if that problem wasn’t fixed.

In short, refer to one of the basic assumptions of economics: every deal made between two or more people or parties IS mutually beneficial.

Jeni (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Everyone but the authors

“No. In fact, we shouldn’t punish them; we should separate the harmful ones from society and help and heal them so that they can rejoin normal society.

Oh. My. Goodness. Were you ever – personally – forced to deal with a psychopath or sociopath? They cannot be “healed”.

Your entire diatribe is astonishing. Do you do this for attention or just to be divisive, or do you really believe all that tripe? If you do, pray tell, how does someone get like this???

freak (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Everyone but the authors

You don’t seem to know much about psychology/psychiatry/whatever the relevant field is.

I’m no expert, but I know enough to know that sociopathy is curable . . . enough to form a standard idea of how to do so. A single search pops up with the idea that if sociopathy is seen around the ages of 15-19, then it can be most easily cured, and then by the age of 23-25. Completely.

But even so, let’s accept that a number of people in jail cannot be helped. The grand majority still can. The economic benefit of just one person not being in jail is huge, over a lifetime. Over the course of their lifetimes, I can assure you that the people hired by the jail/gov’t/charity groups to help those inside, will help more people inside than are hired to help.

And then let’s consider punishment; Again from criminal psychology, & statistics, we can look at many pieces of data, including recidivism rates, surveys, psychological profiles, etc. etc. and come to the conclusion that roundabouts 4/5s of criminals don’t think through the consequences of their actions or deliberately did not find out what the consequences would be should they be caught. If we turned every jail into hell on earth and were super-eager to throw people in there, we would still have at least 4/5’s of the crime we do now.

Basically, punishing them harder doesn’t do much, and costs us a lot of money, (Compare the death penalty to life imprisonment . . . life is cheaper). Healing those we can heal has a net benefit to the economy.

Given the evidence, I find this conclusion to be perfectly logical.

To answer your larger question, I find the construct of ‘deserve’ to be pretty detestable when used as a reason for doing something. It is only a creation of the social relationships in society, not a universal constant.

Which is why I attacked each point with a different social situation than was intended. When you labour, you feel you deserve payment because the relationship between you and the employer is a reciprocal relationship: You labour for me, I pay you. When you labour for a friend, the relationship is instead mutualistic, and as such there is a different idea of ‘fair’ and what people ‘deserve’ despite them doing the same work.

Mac says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Everyone but the authors

Me and the GF are very clear on the no children thing; But just in case we have children, our first boy would be called “Laser Shark Dumptruck”, and our first girl would be called “Pixie Fairydust Tinkerbell”. They would love us until they were ten.

Freak, it’s off topic, but I gotta say, that’s the funniest quote I’ve read today. Those are awesome names. Yes, they would love you until they were 10 for sure.:)

Dave (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Everyone but the authors

You might want to think about stepping back from your hate for a word (How empty does it feel to hate an abstract representation?)

So I should reserve my use of hate for those that deserve it. Ha! Abstract representations are very satisfying to hate. I get all the righteous indignation with none of the harm that would come if I directed my hate at people or institutions.

As for the rest of your points, I’m just going to quote the guy above me. This part I absolutely agree with:

The idea of anyone deserving anything is flawed because it depends on everyone having a universal idea of what is fair and what isn’t. We don’t have such an idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

Trademark instead of copyright?

I actually wonder how that would work out. We have yet to really see any modern music go into the public domain. I agree that the use of the music should be allowed, changing it, re-playing it, basically using it for anything you want; but would repackaging the exact same songs into the exact same album and reselling it as The Beatles: New Album be allowed under current trademark laws, if they were to claim trademark on “The Beatles”.

This seems like a situation that would be ideal. Music in the public domain could be used for all sorts of purposes, yet the original artists would retain rights over their name in conjunction with the music, so that loyal fans could still support the band without having to worry about cheap knockoffs merely repackaging the work for profit.

Pseudonym (profile) says:

Don't forget the album artwork...

I consider myself a Beatles… not fan, exactly, because Beatles fans are often scary individuals, but I do have an almost complete collection of the albums.

I bought them because for some of these classic albums, the album art is almost as important as the songs, and even if the recordings were in the public domain, the artwork wouldn’t be. Can you imagine Revolver or Sgt. Pepper without the artwork? No, me neither.

Admittedly, the white album is an exception to this rule.

Oh, and I’d also like point out that the 2003 remix of Let It Be (also known as “the version without all that Phil Spector crap”) is vastly superior to the original.

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