Publish or Perish: Sony Releases Compilation of 50-Year-Old Bob Dylan Bootlegs to Comply with EU Directive


Exploiting a recent European Union Directive extending the term of copyright for sound recordings, Sony released an 86-track collection of Bob Dylan recordings, including studio outtakes and live recordings from 1962-63.

The Directive, issued September 2011, extends the term of protection for sound recording copyrights by 20 years—from 50 years to 70 years. But there’s a catch: the copyright holder must “use it or lose it”—to qualify for protection, the work must be published within 50 years of creation. Recordings by many well-known acts from the British Invasion of the early 1960’s—including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Yardbirds—are bumping up against that cutoff. Sony recognized that the 50-year window’s expiration was approaching and released the tracks, gaining the benefit of the extension.

If not released before January 1, 2013, the works would have been dedicated to the public domain in the EU—free for anyone to exploit without requiring the permission of or payment to Sony, Dylan, and/or anyone else.

The archival release, appropriately dubbed “Bob Dylan: The Copyright Extension Collection Vol. 1.,” includes alternative takes of several songs from Mr. Dylan’s second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “I Shall Be Free,” as well as multiple versions of some songs that missed the final cut. There are live performances, as well, including some from the Gaslight Cafe, Carnegie Hall and the Finjan Club in Montreal.

The Directive, named “Cliff’s Law” after the 1960s-era British pop-singer who campaigned aggressively for the extension, is seen as a victory for many aging superstars, including the aforementioned British invaders, as well as American artists like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and Mr. Dylan, who recorded in Europe. In an interview with the BBC, The Who’s Robert Daltrey—an outspoken proponent of the extension—explained that to the Directive ensured that artists could continue to receive royalties into their old age. “They are not asking for a handout,” he said, “just a fair reward for their creative endeavours.” Indeed, the Directive’s explicit rationale is to eliminate the “income gap” faced by musicians outliving the 50-year term.

Not everyone is as pleased with the extension, however. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, points to numerous reports concluding that longer terms will not benefit the smaller acts and session artists whom the Directive was ostensibly designed to protect. A study by the Center for Intellectual Property Policy and Management at Bournemouth University in England calculates that 72 percent of the financial benefits from the Directive will accrue to record labels, and the vast majority of the remainder to superstar acts—not those musicians identified in the Directive. And many argue that restricting the public’s access to recorded works for another 20 years will hinder creativity—an outcome some decry as being at odds with a fundamental aim of copyright law.

Expect the matter to be taken up again in another 20 years. In the meantime, fans of bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones should be on the lookout for bootleg releases, as record companies seek to exploit the term extension.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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