Just hours before the start of the new decade, a collection of rare Rolling Stones recordings from 1969 were posted to a suspicious YouTube account titled 69RSTRAX — only to be made private the following day. Though Billboard has yet to confirm the origins of the account, the footage dump may be the work of ABKCO Music & Records, which administers the copyrights to the band’s 1960s catalog and was set to lose their hold on those copyrights in the European Union (EU) starting Jan. 1 — unless the company made the recordings publicly available prior to that date.
As first reported by Variety, all of the recordings posted to YouTube — which consisted of low-quality live concert footage and alternate versions of tracks from the Stones albums Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers — turned 50 years old in 2019. That meant ABKCO would have lost those copyrights at the turn of 2020 under EU copyright law, which protects sound recording copyrights for 50 years after the recordings are created but only allows a 20-year extension (for a total of 70 years) if those works are “lawfully communicated to the public” at any time during that initial 50-year period.
Artists and songwriters also have the option of issuing a notice of termination if the rights holder (often a record label) fails to exploit a recording within that 50-year timeframe, at which point they’re given a year to exploit the material and extend the copyright for themselves. Otherwise, the recordings in question go into the public domain.
The “About” section of the YouTube account that posted the recordings lists an “abkco.com” email address, though a representative for ABKCO declined to comment when Billboard reached out for confirmation.
“This is a classic example of modern technology differing from the constructs of original legislation,” says music attorney Jason Boyarski, a partner at Boyarski Fritz. “So you have you have legislation that’s written at a certain period of time that’s not really contemplating releases that can be done like this.”
Boyarski, who notes he is not an expert in EU copyright law specifically, adds that the YouTube dump appears to have been “done purposefully,” and that the episode should become an interesting test case for how far the term “lawfully communicated to the public” can be stretched.
“I’m not sure that that the definitions…have been litigated or ruled upon by any competent jurisdiction [in the EU],” he continues. “So it’s a gray area…it hasn’t been litigated to the point of a transient publishing that’s just a brief period of time. Does that qualify? It’s very interesting.”
Though they are no longer available to view on YouTube, the recordings in question — which reportedly totaled about 130 in all — included performances of songs including “Midnight Rambler,” “Little Queenie” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from a 1969 Rolling Stones concert held at the Oakland Coliseum.
Notably, the 20-year extension to the 50-year copyright period was passed in September 2011 by the Council of the European Union, which at the time claimed that the change was designed to benefit artists and songwriters. However, a number of artists decried the council’s decision, noting that the extension would instead benefit record companies – who in most cases retained ownership of sound recordings in the original record contracts — rather than the musicians who wrote and performed them.
If ABKCO is indeed behind the YouTube account that released the Rolling Stones recordings, it wouldn’t be the first time a record company has attempted to retain its EU copyright of rare recordings by releasing them in a limited way. In 2012 and 2013, Sony Music released two separate collections of unreleased Bob Dylan recordings (the former unsubtly subtitled “The Copyright Extension Collection, Vol. 1”) that were slated to hit the 50-year mark. Also in 2013, Universal Music Group and Apple Records put out a 59-track Beatles compilation featuring rare studio outtakes, BBC performances and other material in an iTunes-only release.