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Universal releases Motown rarities album to reboot European copyright

By | Published on Wednesday 11 January 2017

Universal Music

Billboard has spotted a brand new digital-only compilation that was put out by Universal Music just as 2016 was finally fucking off out the door. Which is noteworthy because it’s a mediocre collection of previously unreleased old recordings that you can put, if you like, in your Sneaky Copyright Reboot File. Which you all have, right? On your shelf? Good.

The new compilation is called ‘Motown Unreleased: 1966’ and features an assortment of previously unreleased tracks from the legendary label that were mainly recorded back in that grand old year that they used to call 1966. Why sneak it out on 30 Dec? Well, to reboot the bloody copyright in Europe of course.

The length of the copyright in a sound recording is a set number of years after it is recorded or released. Those years start counting down as soon as a recording is made, but the copyright term is then rebooted on release, and the years start ticking down anew.

Now, copyright terms vary from country to country, but are harmonised across the European Union. In 2011, the EU sound recordings copyright term was extended from 50 to 70 years after release. The extension went live in 2013, too late to keep The Beatle’s ‘Love Me Do’ in copyright (it having been released in 1962) but doing a fine job of extending the copyright term of much of the rest of the UK record industry’s valuable 1960s catalogue.

Except, the extended term only applies to the ‘after it is released’ bit of the law, not the ‘after it is recorded’ bit. Which basically means that tracks recorded but never released still lose copyright protection after 50 years, and in year 51 a release will no longer reboot the copyright. But if you get those recordings out in year 50, the copyright reboots and the 70 year term starts ticking anew. Actually, copyright terms expire at the end of the year during which the 50/70 year point passes, which is why 31 Dec was actually the deadline.

By putting out its lacklustre Motown album, Universal has assured that previously unreleased tracks by Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and others now have 70 years of copyright protection in Europe, and are not public domain. Similar copyright reboot releases have been put out in recent years featuring rarity recordings by The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Although those Motown tracks would have gone public domain – ie would have no longer been restricted by copyright – had Universal not put out the new compilation, as previously unreleased tracks they would also likely have never been heard. So this particular copyright technicality means labels are incentivised to put out some rarities for fans each year, and such reboot releases are likely to become ever more common.

Though, if you’re a fan of super copyright technicalities, I’ll note here that in the UK – but not Europe at large – the so called 2039 Rule means actually the copyright in unreleased recordings from the early 1960s could still be rebooted, and if you’re a super interested and super premium CMU subscriber, you can read more about all that here.