The Beatles, Brian Wilson, Motown and Copyright Law

The BeatlesHarry Hammond/Getty

Early in the morning of December 17, 2013, three all but unannounced digital-only compilations were quietly released. So quietly, in fact, that at first there were concerns that they might only be available for a few hours, which caused a rush on downloads that strained the servers at iTunes and Amazon. Why all the sudden hubbub? Because these compilations consisted of ultra-rare and mostly previously unreleased (even in bootleg circles) recordings made in 1963 by The Beatles, Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, and the collective geniuses at Motown Records.

The reason they came out in the waning days of 2013 is down to the vagaries of copyright law. A recent change in European copyright law extends the copyright period of recordings from 50 to 70 years, but only if the recordings in question are commercially released; otherwise, copyright expires 50 years after the songs were recorded. In other words, these songs would have gone into the public domain yesterday morning if they hadn’t been commercially released: now the copyrights are good until the end of 2083.

The reason for the digital-only, unheralded releases is that the material in question is really aimed at the most hardcore fans: there’s nothing particularly revelatory on any of the sets in terms of fantastic buried gems. That said, each has its own fascinations. The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 starts off with early studio run-throughs of familiar songs which are mostly of interest to hardcore studio nerds listening for lyrical changes or different instrumental riffs. But the bulk of the 59-track (!!!) set consists of live BBC sessions that capture the band at their most infectious and energetic.

The 22-track anthology of early Brian Wilson productions, The Big Beat 1963, finds the mercurial genius right at the point where he’s learning how to command the recording studio; by 1964, this will result in deathless pop classics like “The Warmth of the Sun” and “I Get Around.”  But while these experiments with The Beach Boys, The Honeys (a vocal trio featuring Brian’s girlfriend Marilyn Rovell), and others have their moments, they’re mostly juvenilia, throwbacks to the ’50s rock that inspired Wilson rather than portents to the gorgeously complex pop symphonies he was about to start writing.

The 52-track Motown 1963 Unreleased follows up on five different collections of 1962 rarities that came out in late 2012, including separate discs of unreleased jazz and gospel sessions. Unlike the rough and ready demos and outtakes on the Beatles and Wilson collections, the fabled Motown assembly line created these finished radio-ready mixes that for various reasons didn’t make Berry Gordy’s final cut. To be fair, Marvin Gaye’s “Talking ‘Bout the Limbo” would have done his career no favors, and songs like R. Dean Taylor’s abashed-stalker anthem “Respectable Distance Away” even now sound too weird to get within sniffing distance of the charts. But they all sound amazing in that classic early-Motown style.

As the years go on, look for these download-only fan releases to officially become A Thing. Capitol Records already seems to be surprised at how well The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 has done: even retailing at a hefty $39.99, the set sold over 7000 copies its first week, making it onto the Billboard album charts at #172. Not bad for an album that’s basically just a legal maneuver. To real Beatles diehards, this means only one thing: in 2017, Capitol will release the fabled “Carnival of Light,” a legendary 14-minute psychedelic experiment that has long been the holy grail of Beatles collectors.