EMI sues obscure Santa Cruz-based website

An obscure website is brazenly offering the Beatles’ music for sale digitally, much to the dismay of EMI, the group’s record label.

Santa Cruz, Calif.-based BlueBeat.com apparently began marketing the Fab Four tracks — hitherto unavailable from online music merchants — at lowball prices late last week.

EMI, which distribs Beatles recordings via an agreement with the group’s music company, Apple Corps, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the company Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles. Company also issued a curt statement: “EMI has not authorized content to be sold on BlueBeat.”

BlueBeat is a division of Media Rights Technologies, a diversified Northern California digital media distribution firm. Execs at Media Rights Technologies did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Observers immediately viewed BlueBeat’s sale of Beatles tracks with suspicion, since even iTunes musicstore, digital music’s industry leader, has never had access to the Beatles’ music. The online sale of the band’s material has been the subject of protracted wrangling between EMI and Apple Corps (not to be confused with Apple Computer, parent company of iTunes).

The recent release of remastered Beatles CD box sets and “The Beatles: Rock Band” vidgame have spurred a resurgence of interest in the Fab Four’s music, which is conspicuously unavailable for legal purchase in the digital realm.

When plans for the CD box sets were announced in April, EMI and Apple Corps said in a statement that “discussions regarding the digital distribution of the catalogue will continue.” EMI and Apple Corps are said to be haggling over the specifics of how profits from digital sales would be divvied up.

Thumbing its nose at copyright constraints, BlueBeat is selling individual Beatles tracks at just 25¢ apiece, far below iTunes’ price point of $1.25 per track for premium tunes.

BlueBeat offers virtually the entire Beatles canon. Titles include all the remastered studio albums, plus such previously issued sets as the hits compilation “1,” the three “Anthology” collections and the stripped-down 2003 set “Let It Be … Naked.”

Each album is offered as an unlimited free stream. Prices on full albums range from $3.50 for the Beatles’ debut “Please Please Me” to $7.50 for “The Beatles” (the so-called “White Album”).

In a twist ripe with irony, representatives of Media Rights Technologies recently wrote to the Librarian of Congress asking that the webcasting licenses of such firms as iTunes, Pandora and MSN Music be revoked on piracy grounds.

In a company press release issued in 2007, Media Rights co-founder and CEO Hank Risan accused Apple of failing to obtain the necessary licenses to distribute copyrighted material on the Internet, which prompted the company to remove all links to iTunes from BlueBeat.com.

“MRT will not condone copyright infringement nor risk infringement liability for our customers and partners. Until Apple is fully compliant with government regulations, iTunes will not be permitted on our sites,” Risan said at the time.

Risan was named as a defendant in EMI’s suit.

The MRT website describes Risan as a music buff and mathematician who is focused on developing “technical solutions that solve a very large industry problem” of music piracy.

In other Fabs news, Apple and EMI will issue the entire Beatles studio catalog on a limited edition USB drive in the U.S. on Dec. 8. The collection was quietly announced on the band’s Web site Tuesday.

Housed in a faux green apple that duplicates the Apple label artwork, the computer drive will include all the music from the band’s 14 stereo titles, plus visual components from the boxed set, including mini-documentaries about the albums, cover art, photos and expanded liner notes.

Production of the package will be limited to 30,000 copies worldwide.

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