Beatles copyright case down a legal rabbit hole

BlueBeat is streaming Beatles recordings for free and selling them for 25 cents apiece, claiming that they aren't the original recordings and therefore aren't copyright-protected.

Last week, a music site called BlueBeat made headlines by offering Beatles songs as free streams and 25 cent downloads. The Beatles are known for not making their songs legally available on iTunes or any other online forum, so observers rightly asked "how are they doing this legally?"

EMI, the record label that owns The Beatles' recordings, has a simple response: they're not doing this legally. But here's where the story gets very strange.

The legal reasoning in this case is straight out of "Alice in Wonderland." Wikimedia Commons (public domain illustration)

BlueBeat is owned by a company called Media Rights Technologies, which specializes in digital rights management technology. DRM is supposed to be used to prevent copyright infringement. But according to a 2007 blog post on by the company's founder, Hank Risan, MRT backed into this business after being--get this--targeted by the RIAA for copyright infringement.

As Risan explains in his post, he and a partner had posted a bunch of streaming-audio files to a Web site about the history of music. The RIAA issued a takedown notice, and the site took the streams down.

The streams had been protected by Windows Media DRM, but according to Risan, an update to the Media Player broke the DRM. In response to this flaw, Risan created MRT and built his own DRM system, which he claimed would be far more robust than the systems on the market at that time. Then, in 2007, MRT sent cease-and-desist letters to Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, and RealNetworks, ordering them to use MRT's DRM technology instead of their own, on threat of legal action.

The legal reasoning was twisted--basically, MRT argued that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act should force these companies to use the most robust DRM technology available, even if that technology was created by somebody else. Predictably, nothing ever came of this demand.

MRT's legal reasoning is equally funny this time around, as Ars Technica reports. According to the report, MRT claims that it didn't post the exact Beatles recordings. Instead, it posted "psychoacoustic simulations," then added simple video content to them. This constitutes a new audiovisual work, and isn't covered by the existing copyrights, MRT argues. In fact, MRT even went so far as to apply for copyrights on the "new" works!

Perhaps this is all some kind of metacommentary on the frustrating inconsistency of U.S. copyright law, but I predict that MRT is going to be laughed out of court. In the meantime, if you want your Beatles music online, it's still available on BlueBeat as of the time I posted this. I didn't want to give the company a credit card to test the whether the downloads work, but the streams sound pretty close to perfect...especially considering that they're only psychoacoustic simulations.

Featured Video