While music-lovers keep watching for signs that The Beatles catalog is about to come to iTunes ("Is that new yellow iPod tied to 'Yellow Submarine?' Is Steve Jobs wearing a Sgt. Pepper jacket?"), a previously obscure streaming-music site called BlueBeat.com has quietly begun selling Beatles MP3s for a quarter apiece, claiming in their FAQ:
Our mp3s are fully-licensed audio-visual works and BlueBeat.com pays all applicable royalties. … For more information about what defines an audio-visual work, read the Copyright help file at http://www.copyright.gov/eco/help-type.html
Now, Variety reports that EMI has filed a lawsuit against BlueBeat for copyright infringement. BlueBeat's parent company Media Rights Technology was unavailable for comment on the lawsuit, but as of this morning, The Beatles' albums and songs were still for sale. It'll be fascinating to see how this story develops, and if MRT can produce a legal rationale for their business model. The Variety story contains some curious information in that regard, noting MRT CEO Hank Risan's past manifestos on music-licensing and piracy. It seems he may be selling the previously unsellable in order to prove a larger point.
Two footnotes to this story:
1. By selling The Beatles' music for as long as it can, BlueBeat.com is following in the tradition of Vee-Jay Records, who in 1964 released the album Introducing… The Beatles a few days before Capitol put out Meet The Beatles in the U.S. Vee-Jay had licensed The Beatles music when Capitol (EMI's American wing) initially showed no interest, but EMI cancelled the financially troubled, oft-unscrupulous Vee-Jay's contract when The Beatles took off internationally. Undeterred (and needing money), Vee-Jay put an album out anyway, and continued to release it in varying configurations over the next year in order to dodge Capitol's lawsuits. Ultimately, a settlement was reached and Vee-Jay agreed to stop selling Beatles records… but not until they'd already sold millions. (Different circumstances here, but a few parallels.)
2. In the interest of journalism, I tried out BlueBeat's MP3 store yesterday. Not for The Beatles—I'd already bought the Mono box set a couple of weeks ago—but for AC/DC, another band which doesn't yet sell their music on-line, but is being offered via BlueBeat. I bought every album from High Voltage to For Those About To Rock (seven in all, since I skipped the live album) for $16.25. The downloading process was awkward and choppy, and failed several times, but I eventually got all my MP3s. Sound quality's fine, but not exceptional. So there you have it. Let there be rock.