How Record Labels Conspired To Kill Off Public Domain Beatles Music In Canada

from the no-public-domain-for-you dept

Earlier this year, we discussed that, thanks to shorter copyright terms in Canada, things like early Beatles recordings and James Bond had entered the public domain up north. It was no secret that the recording industry was totally freaked out about this, and that resulted in the somewhat bizarre situation in which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper single-handedly extended copyright on sound recordings for 20 years by sticking it into a budget update, without any public discussion or concern about the fact that he was simply wiping out twenty years of use of works that the public had been promised.

Of course, this extension only applied to works that hadn’t yet fallen into the public domain, so there is still a small window of early 1960s sound recordings that are, in fact, in the public domain. One company, Stargrove Entertainment, sought to take advantage of this, and released a CD of public domain Beatles music, selling it at various retailers like Wal-Mart, and causing it to be the top selling CD in Canada for a little while. And that’s when the recording industry struck back. According to a massive legal filing to Canada’s Competition Tribunal filed by Stargrove, the big record labels conspired to shut down its ability to sell public domain music (hat tip to Michael Geist for first highlighting this filing).

There were a number of nasty tricks played by the legacy recording companies here, but it starts with the fact that, while the sound recordings are in the public domain, the compositions remain under copyright. Normally that shouldn’t be a problem, as Canada effectively has a compulsory licensing system for mechanical licenses on the publishing. Pay up the standard fee and you’re all good. And that’s exactly what Stargrove did for that Beatles album. But, it was then that it appears the powers that be in the record labels — who just happen to also own the major publishing companies — suddenly decided that it would no longer approve mechanical licenses.

The publishers associated with each of the Titles include ABKCO, Casablanca and Sony (collectively, the ?Title Holders?). One by one, and in quick succession, each of the Title Holders gave instructions to CMRRA [Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency Ltd.] in January or February 2015 to stop issuing mechanical licences to Stargrove.

A CMRRA representative professed her surprise to Stargrove at this instruction from the Title Holders, but CMRRA followed their instruction. In fact, CMRRA went even further and refused to grant Stargrove any mechanical licences, whether from one of the Title Holders or not. Stargrove?s attempts to enter into an MLA were stymied by CMRRA, who erected barrier after barrier to Stargrove?s application.

CMRRA refunded Stargrove?s royalty payment for the Titles at the end of February 2015.

On multiple occasions, Stargrove requested explanations for the refusals to grant mechanical licences, both from CMRRA and from the Title Holders directly, and asked them to reverse course. Stargrove has been refused an explanation, other than in a letter from CMRRA, which stated that the Title Holders? ?refusal to deal is at least partially related to the fact that there are public domain master recordings on the products in question.?

Thus, even though the recordings are in the public domain, suddenly Stargrove is blocked from releasing CDs with those recordings, despite the fact that CMRRA has always approved every other mechanical license request at the standard fee ($0.083 per song, per copy for songs less than 5 minutes).

And that was just the beginning. Universal Music Canada’s then-CEO, Randy Lennox, then sought to interfere with Stargrove’s distribution partner, reaching out to them to try to resolve “the public domain issue.”

Randy Lennox, the CEO of Universal Music Canada Inc., sent an e-mail to the principals of Anderson, the distributors of Stargrove?s CDs, asking Anderson to partner with Universal to find solutions and resolve what he called a ?public domain issue?.

Did you know the public domain is an “issue”? Now you do…

And that’s not all. Stargrove also alleges that Universal Music started posting negative reviews online of the Beatles CD:

Brian Greaves, an account manager at Universal Music Canada Inc., concocted negative reviews on Walmart’s website, complaining that Stargrove?s products were of poor quality. He encouraged other Universal employees to do the same and to help him with Universal?s ?campaign? to discourage Anderson from distributing Stargrove?s CDs, stating that poor reviews would deter Anderson from distributing Stargrove?s products in the future. Walmart subsequently removed all the fake reviews from its site. Stargrove?s CDs had a low return rate: of the over 2000 Stargrove CDs sold, only one CD was returned.

Mr. Greaves noted that Stargrove?s CDs were taking away from Universal?s sales and market share, and claimed that Universal had already successfully removed a Rolling Stones title from the CDs offered for sale by Stargrove, despite the fact that the copyright in question was held by ABKCO, not Universal.

All this because the industry so fears having to compete against the public domain. All this because, despite having total exclusivity for fifty years on some of the most popular music on the planet, that’s still not enough.

It really makes you wonder why does Universal Music and the other record labels seem to hate the public so much? When those songs were recorded, everyone knew they’d be in the public domain now. That was a part of the deal. And it was certainly enough incentive to get the songs recorded at the time. So why are they so focused on continuing to block the public domain today?

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Companies: stargrove entertainment, universal music, walmart

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Comments on “How Record Labels Conspired To Kill Off Public Domain Beatles Music In Canada”

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38 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

…Mr. Greaves noted that Stargrove’s CDs were taking away from Universal’s sales…

If Universal is selling the same material then what’s the difference between the two? If Stargrove’s quality really is worse than Universal don’t you think the fans would be yelling about it?

And if it’s because Stargrove’s product is in WalMart and Universal’s is not: whose fault is that?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Is this one of those rhetorical questions?

It really makes you wonder why does Universal Music and the other record labels seem to hate the public so much? When those songs were recorded, everyone knew they’d be in the public domain now. That was a part of the deal. And it was certainly enough incentive to get the songs recorded at the time. So why are they so focused on continuing to block the public domain today?

Really? You actually need to ask? It’s simple:

It provides competition, they cannot control it, and therefor cannot use it to extort money from others for it’s use.

Something in the public domain is something they don’t have a monopoly on, which means anyone can sell it, use it, or give it away, all without having to ask them for permission, without having to pay them ridiculous sums simply because the choice is ‘Pay us or go without’.

They hate the public domain because they can’t control it(directly at least), and because it provides competition to the rubbish they offer. As their actions make crystal clear, as far as they’re concerned copyright law is meant solely to benefit the parasites, and no one else. That it theoretically is meant to benefit the public is simply window dressing, a lie to trot out when they want the next retroactive expansion to the duration, and ignored completely otherwise.

cpt kangarooski says:

Don’t forget to take a look at this hilarious polemic against the public domain by Robert Hutton, who is apparently the head of the Canadian Music Publishers Association.

Christ, what an asshole!

(Oh and thanks to the Music • Technology • Policy blog for posting it. They’re wrong about absolutely everything, all the time, but at least they’re always good for a laugh)

David says:

Public Domain is the _only_ competition

Everything else runs through the record companies. If some supermarket decides to only run 50s and 60s music of reasonably good quality through their PA systems, do you have any idea how much revenue is lost day after day?

If a rock revival disco event can make do with only Public Domain music, any idea how much money will get lost?

The isolated PD recording is not the problem. The problem is if you get enough together to actually arrange for a continuous offering of music. And, God beware, if people get to prefer that music? What are you going to do? Dig up the old musicians and tell them to go back to composing instead of decomposing?

Anonymous Coward says:

YAY! Copyright maximalists defeat copying CRAP! -- MAXIMALISM JUST ISN'T ENOUGH FOR BEATLES! MORE THIS KIND OF PREVENTATIVE ACTION!

Who cares? If you can’t hear or even get the originals for free, you’re just not trying. I find it almost impossible to avoid Beatles crap! It’s a staple of drug-addled hippies and neo-hippies, though.

Who cares? Why do you want lousy covers of crap that everyone has heard endlessly for fifty years?

WHO THE HELL CARES? Except you to use it against copyright. Millions of people will get deserved value from copyright products today, but YOU’RE worried some nitwits can’t copy the Beatles!

Yet again, what you try to cast as stifling “creativity” I see as liberating and admirable prevention of more crap-ifying.

I think it better to force band-clowns to come up with anything new. You’ve slanted this as if horrible, but what’s your positive case for repeating crap that’s readily available? How does that make anything better? Why are you locked into the 1960s? You’re just wackily anachronistic hippies. I’ve never met anyone who liked Beatles and did not use drugs. It’s a syndrome.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: YAY! Copyright maximalists defeat copying CRAP! -- MAXIMALISM JUST ISN'T ENOUGH FOR BEATLES! MORE THIS KIND OF PREVENTATIVE ACTION!

You’re so proud of your latest nonsensical “signature” that you had to make it a separate post when you forgot to paste into your comment? Pretty sad, but at least there’s some coherence therein, unlike the word salad above.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: YAY! Copyright maximalists defeat copying CRAP! -- MAXIMALISM JUST ISN'T ENOUGH FOR BEATLES! MORE THIS KIND OF PREVENTATIVE ACTION!

The people your posts are being hidden are BECAUSE people don’t want to see them. Advertising a workaround is ironic and moronic, especially when all it takes to read your posts is a simple click of the unhide button.

The only thing you are accomplishing here is making yourself look like a rambling loonatic and a whiney crybaby.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Re: Re: YAY! Copyright maximalists defeat copying CRAP! -- MAXIMALISM JUST ISN'T ENOUGH FOR BEATLES! MORE THIS KIND OF PREVENTATIVE ACTION!

“Have to click to see comments the fanboys censored?”
You sir have some major cognitive dissonance going on. If your post has been censored, a simple click won’t reveal it. It’s gone. Completely. But you’ll just keep hollering about how we’re all evil pirates who censor the sole crusader for justice or something, because you’re an idiot.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: YAY! Copyright maximalists defeat copying CRAP! -- MAXIMALISM JUST ISN'T ENOUGH FOR BEATLES! MORE THIS KIND OF PREVENTATIVE ACTION!

You know, I have a 11 year-old nephew that loves the Beattles. He doesn’t use drugs and he is a very good student.

To follow your logic, who the hell cares about your opinion? How does it make anything better? Why are you locked into a reload loop in Techdirt? I’ve never met any troll who didn’t sniff used socks and underwear. It’s a syndrome.

spqr2008 (profile) says:

Seems like a Counterproductive Idea to piss off Wal-Mart

I seems like a really bad idea to irritate the world’s largest company as a content provider. AFAIK they change out the entire DVD section in each store each quarter, and wouldn’t it just be a coincidence that all of Universal’s movies just aren’t on the shelf any longer? Or that any that would have dropped into the Value Bins stay at $10 or higher? I know physical media sales are down, but actively trying to hurt sales at a large retail partner that can either actively promote your products, or ignore and put out only one spot for your newest release seems like a really bad idea.

JBlad (profile) says:

How does this work?

This is a real question that I am having a hard time figuring out. Can anyone explain how it works for there to be a sound recording in the public domain that is of a copyrighted composition? I can understand it the other way around, but this is confusing to me. If the recording is in the public domain, but the composition is copyrighted, what can I do with the recording? Would I need to pay to license the composition if I wanted to sample the recording and incorporate it into my own song?

Also, does the copyright on sound recordings operate with different terms than the copyright on compositions?

Ninja (profile) says:

and that resulted in the somewhat bizarre situation in which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper single-handedly extended copyright on sound recordings for 20 years by sticking it into a budget update, without any public discussion or concern about the fact that he was simply wiping out twenty years of use of works that the public had been promised.

This is by far the most offensive thing of all. Sure the MAFIAA are a bunch of rotten assholes but none of this wouldn’t be possible if Harper worked for those that elected him and not to a small set of interests. Harper, as it seems Canadians agree, is one of the worst things Canada has seen for a while now.

David says:

Re: compulsory licensing system for mechanical licenses

I guess I don’t understand the term “compulsory”.

That’s a nice grandmother you have there. It would be a real shame if she choked on that license of yours and drowned. But go to court if you want to. We’ll just shut down your business completely. If you find a court not in our pockets, it will be so overloaded that it will take five years, double that for appeals, until getting through.

How are you going to pay your workers? Fire them? Well, you know, we just happen to know that a large number have signed up to be union members. I happen to have a list here. A really well-financed union, by the way.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: compulsory licensing system for mechanical licenses

Yeah, that they were able to refuse to offer the ‘compulsory’ licenses to a specific company makes it abundantly clear that the system is anything but compulsory. If anything it’s a nicely set-up monopoly, force everyone to go to one place to get the licenses, and then use that position to extort as much as you can from them, or block them if you don’t care for them.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

I am 63 years old. Wouldn’t it be terrible if the music I listened to as a teenager ever became public domain in my lifetime? In the US the time doesn’t even start until the last Beatle has died. That means my great grandson would be in his 50’s before this happened. If the copyright maximists had their way the ancestors of Mozart would be filing lawsuits.

Anonymous Coward says:

At present I own approximately 500 CD’s. Purchased in most part between 5-10 years after they became available on the market. I for one will never again purchase a prerecorded CD, not from a retailer, not from a thrift store, not from a pawn shop, not from any source. RIP RIAA. Your stench has become to overpowering.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Can't buy me

Harper: Offer that man enough cash and he’ll sell you any chunk of Canada that strikes your fancy – any piece that is, except the parts that China, Russia, America and Britain already own.

I believe that Quebec is the only area not on the offering block though.

I hear that Harper’s goal is to have a chateau or castle in every major country on earth, and he’s willing to sell off almost all of Canada to get what he wants.

He’s what they call Trill. 🙂

Ellinas123 (profile) says:

Stargrove Entertainment is a RIPOFF!

I signed up here specifically to make a comment about Stargrove! They are misleading consumers bigtime! I recently purchased a 2 CD set of their ‘SUPER HITS OF THE 70s’, only to find out that these are NOT the original hits! They are cheap remakes, and nowhere on the CD was this indicated! The assumption, even for a longtime audio and music enthusiast like myself, is that these would indeed be the originals. I feel ripped off, misled, etc., and feel that there should be laws whereby a CD should be labeled as to whether the consumer is purchasing original songs, or as in this case, fake, raped versions! I hope this shyster of a company either goes out of business soon, or already has! Charlatans!

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