In the days since the brief New Year’s Eve “copyright dump” of at least 75 rare Rolling Stones songs onto YouTube just hours before their European copyright was to expire, insiders and (especially) fans have speculated at length about the origins of the tracks and the legal ramifications of the move. While reps for both the Stones and Abkco Music & Records, which administers the group’s 1960s catalog, either declined or did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment, several sources and experts have commented on both the legalities of the situation and the recording details of the songs themselves.
The tracks, most of which date from 1969, were posted onto YouTube, apparently by Abkco, on the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2019 — the very end of the 50-year term recognized by the EU. They remained there — albeit with an ugly dial-tone-like sound obscuring the rarest recordings — for approximately 24 hours before being shifted from public to a private, invite-only setting. Abkco apparently has made similar moves in past years that went unnoticed, at least publicly, except by some fan groups.
Abkco’s motivation for posting the songs would seem clear: The company needed to “lawfully publish” or “lawfully communicate [them] to the public” — i.e release them in some way — within 50 years after the performances were made, or it would lose the copyrights; Bob Dylan, the Beatles and others have issued similar low-profile collections in recent years. If the YouTube posts are deemed legitimate releases in the EU, Abkco’s copyright will term will last until the end of 2089. The terms of the “use it or lose it” provisions of a 2011 EU directive allow the artist to “terminate” the assignment of rights in unreleased sound recordings 50 years after they were made, prominent copyright attorney Zvi S. Rosen explained to Variety. If unclaimed, the Stones almost certainly would have secured the rights for themselves, as the group has had an at-times contentious relationship with Abkco — and has long coveted the copyrights for “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women” and dozens of their other ‘60s songs — over the 50 years since it parted ways with the company’s founder, the late Allen Klein, their former business manager and one of the most successful and tenacious executives in music-industry history.
However, it is unclear whether a brief posting on YouTube meets the EU’s standards for a lawful publication. “What Abkco did may have extended the copyright, although I think that’s somewhat debatable,” Rosen tells Variety. “The group could still try to terminate the assignment of rights for failure to make them [more widely] available. In response, Abkco would need to make the recordings available more properly to avoid a transfer of the rights to the group.” (This issue was explored in further detail by The Verge on Friday.)
But of greater interest to fans more concerned with music than European copyright minutia is a recent forum post on the “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” fan site that contains unusually specific details about the songs and how the recordings, some of which are early or instrumental versions, were obtained by Abkco (which, as distributor, ordinarily would not have such works-in-progress in its archives). While the Stones’ Abkco vault is carefully protected, its basic contents have been widely known, and often available on bootlegs, for decades. However, some of the studio recordings in the copyright dump (along with several fully mixed but unreleased live tracks) were a surprise even to the most dedicated fans.
The short answer to the latter question, claims the writer of the IORR post, is that “these dozen or so studio tracks were never in the Abkco vaults” and instead “come from the Rolling Stones’ own library of unreleased recordings.” The writer says they were loaned to the producers of HBO’s 2012 Stones documentary “Crossfire Hurricane,” which includes several previously unreleased alternate versions of familiar Stones songs, “especially,” the writer notes, “instrumental tracks over which the Stones could be interviewed off screen. Some of the selections were used in the film. Others were not. These are the ones that were not.” The writer speculates that “it’s possible these YouTube selections were also sent over to Abkco before the final cut of the film was readied for release, just in case they were to have been used.” In a detailed analysis of the songs in question, the writer claims that several of them do not date from 1969: The acoustic version of “Ruby Tuesday” apparently is an early version from 1966; two are from 1968; more puzzling is a 1978 tour rehearsal of “Gimme Shelter.”
At the conclusion of their deal with Abkco and Decca Records, in 1971 the Stones registered their own company, Promotone, formed Rolling Stones Records and have licensed their ensuing catalog multiple times over the decades, first to Warner Music’s Atlantic label, then Columbia, then Virgin/EMI and finally Universal, with which the group recently re-upped via a “multi-faceted” (and doubtless multi-multi-million-dollar) deal. And although relations between the group and Abkco have stabilized since their bitter separation 50 years ago — and the company has released several excellent reissue packages — the Rolling Stones’ ’60s vault is one of rock’s few remaining holy grails.
Additional reporting by Ivor Levene.