Why are 59 unreleased Beatles songs now on iTunes?

The majority of the songs are already circulating among collectors, but the officially issued recordings on iTunes are significant for their sound quality, at least one Beatles expert says.

Edward T. Adams/AP/File
In this photo from Feb. 9, 1964, Ed Sullivan rehearses with the Beatles before their first appearance in the United States. From left are Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Mr. Sullivan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney.

A band released music Tuesday with no promotion and limited distribution. They’re called the Beatles. Ring a bell?

The iconic band indeed released 59 recordings via iTunes Tuesday, but with little fanfare, and the release could be of short duration. The reason for the move: so the band can benefit from protections in European Union copyright laws.

In Europe prior to 2011, musicians retained the rights to their recordings for up to 50 years. Two years ago, the length of years was increased to 70 years – but the additional 20 years applies only to recordings that have been released.

Thus veteran bands have been releasing previously unissued recordings that are almost 50 years old, to extend their rights and avoid having the recordings fall into the public domain.

Tuesday’s release of Beatles recordings isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. In January, Sony issued 86 Bob Dylan recordings, all previously unreleased. The title: “The Copyright Extension Collection Vol. 1.” Only 100 copies were pressed for distribution in select record stores in Europe.

“Performers generally start their careers young and the ... protection of 50 years often does not protect their performances for their entire lifetime,” the EU said in a statement following the copyright rule change in 2011. Some performers are “not able to rely on their rights to prevent or restrict objectionable uses of their performances that may occur during their lifetimes.”

As it is, the Beatles are one of the most bootlegged bands in the world, and many recordings, considered highly desirable to collectors, are still not available. This includes a 28-minute version of “Helter Skelter,” considered a holy grail performance by many Beatles fans.

For the most part, the band has remained reluctant to release studio outtakes, rehearsal performances, and unreleased material – issuances that other legacy bands have undertaken recently.

But if the Beatles recordings in question were not released now, some speculate, the music would fall into the hands of others who would profit greatly from legally distributing copies on their own.

In fact, the majority of the songs are already circulating among collectors, but the officially issued recordings are significant for their sound quality, says Bruce Spizer, a Beatles historian based in New Orleans who has written several definitive books on the band.

“Even if you are a hard-core collector, it’s a worthwhile purchase,” Mr. Spizer says.

The Beatles have “always placed an emphasis on doing quality releases,” he also says. “They don’t want to put things out without giving the releases proper consideration in their place in the Beatles legacy. And while many fans are frustrated by the slowness of the releases, the majority of fans recognize the quality of what is coming out.”

iTunes holds the rights to sell Beatles music online.

Apple Records – the label the Beatles created in 1968 – has not issued a press release or promoted the new collection. It is unclear if the songs will be issued on CD or vinyl.

The live recordings in the new collection are mostly from the BBC in 1963, while 15 songs are studio outtakes. Those songs are largely from the “Please Please Me” album and are not mixed – meaning listeners will have an opportunity to hear vocals and instruments separately.

Two songs, “I’m in Love” and “Bad to Me,” are John Lennon demos, but were cowritten by him and Paul McCartney and were never recorded by the Beatles. Both songs were given to other artists, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas and Fourmost.

US copyright laws differ from those in Europe. In America, composers and lyricists own the copyright on their works and the “master rights,” or recordings of their works, for their entire lifetime, plus 70 years after their death.

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