Love Me Do is now in the public domain, but the law is
about to change, David Patrick Stearns writes.
The Beatles' first hit, Love Me Do, is now in the public
domain, meaning the 50-year copyright on the pop classic
has lapsed. Photo from Reuters.
You are going to hear sooner or later, and feel rather old
when you do: The Beatles' first single, Love Me Do, is
now in the public domain, at least in Europe.
How could that be? Though not the most durable Beatles song,
it hardly seems to be from another time, though given the
passage of 50 years, it most certainly is. Remember '60s
hysteria? The kids who wrote ''Beatles'' on their contact
lenses because they couldn't think about anything else? The
girls who saved the Kleenex tissues into which they'd wept at
the Shea Stadium concert?
Yet the music itself does not feel Paleolithic. Though the
world has been anything but stationary, pop music is not as
disposable as it was once assumed to be - one reason why the
laws are on the verge of changing. By November, the European
Union will vote to extend the copyright on recordings from 50
to 70 years. It is a potentially important moment in the
world of art and commerce.
The Love Me Do news sprang across my screen from an
unlikely source - the website Pristine Classical (www.pristineclassical.com),
which specialises in remastering old classical recordings and
was protesting the impending change by offering a remastered
Love Me Do, one of only two Beatles recordings (the
other is P.S. I Love You) released in 1962 and thus in
the public domain, before the door slams shut again this year
with the copyright extension.
For a business as small as Pristine - old symphonic
recordings by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler, Arturo
Toscanini, and Eugene Ormandy - extended copyright may not be
catastrophic news, but it is not good. Often, such indie
labels are the only way these recordings will reach the
public, considering that the major labels, for which these
performances were originally recorded, have been bought and
sold so many times that current owners often do not know or
care what their back classical catalogue contains.
Love Me Do comes with a very different set of
concerns. British rock star Cliff Richard, now 72, has been
agitating for years to extend the copyright expiration date.
Who thought that would be necessary (or that any rock star
would live so long)? Like many pop-music movements, 1960s
rock was a point of teenage rebellion - part of its appeal
was that our parents hated it. Mine told me not to buy
Beatles albums because I would not be listening to them a
year later. They had a point: When rebellion is no longer
necessary, is the music obsolete?
But not only did we listen to the Beatles for years,
subsequent generations did not find it necessary to rebel
against us, at least musically speaking - they love the
''If there's one thing your generation gave us,'' a young guy
in Philadelphia said recently while blasting the Rolling
Stones on his car radio, ''it's great music and great weed.''
It helps that the music continues to be prevalent on radio,
not to mention the sound system at your gym.
Also, remarkably little is new in mainstream pop. Yes, there
is rap, but that is more a literary form than a musical one.
When I occasionally dip back into mainstream pop - groups
like Radiohead, Coldplay, Modest Mouse, Scissor Sisters and
Of Montreal - the musical voices are distinctive but the
idiom is comfortable and familiar.
That evergreen quality is just what fuels the copyright
changes. The compositions have extended protection, but they
are no longer the central entity of the music business, a
change from the early '60s, when a hit such as I Left My
Heart in San Francisco could be identified with Tony
Bennett but recorded by plenty of other singers.
There was also a big subculture of knockoffs. When Harry
Belafonte's Banana Boat Song started to turn into a
hit, no-name performers hustled into recording studios to do
their own half-price rush-release versions.
That practice became impossible with the Beatles. By the time
they got to such high-concept songs as A Day in the
Life in 1967, the songs' most intriguing elements - like
A Day's fantastical orchestral crescendo - could not
even be translated into sheet music, much less imitated by
anybody. You might stumble across a Bing Crosby version of
Hey Jude that seemed pathetic if only because it
Therefore, the performance is the song. Copyright protection
for A Day in the Life as a composition is meaningless
unless the recording is protected too; the composition does
not exist outside the performance, the case for much
post-1962 pop, from I Can See for Miles to Good
In the US, recordings have copyright protection for up to 95
years, thanks to codification of copyright laws prompted by
Sonny Bono. However, the internet's dissolution of borders
means European copyright law is indeed relevant to both US
intellectual-property owners and to consumers. And until the
EU copyright-extension vote is final at the end of 2013, it
should be an interesting year.
One of the most blatant manifestations of
copyright-expiration panic is Bob Dylan - The 50th
Anniversary Collection / The Copyright Extension Collection
Vol. I. Because copyright protection begins with the date of
publication, not the date of the recording, Sony Music is
issuing a limited Europe-only four-CD set of early-'60s
outtakes. This material, perhaps too rough for widespread
dissemination, will not mean open season for enterprising
Already, a label identifying itself as Music Square has
issued live Dylan performances from 1961 (found here and
there on US bootlegs), one from the Gaslight Cafe in New
York, another from a Minneapolis apartment. Americans can
access them from European websites with the click of a mouse.