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Last Updated: Friday, 24 September 2004, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Apple row goes to core of online music
Bill Thompson grew up on John, Paul, George and Ringo and bought all their records. Now he'd like them to give something back.

The Beatles, BBC
No Beatles tunes on iTunes. Yet.
The legal battle between Apple Corps, the company founded by the Beatles, and Apple Computer, which makes the Macintosh and the iPod, has taken an interesting turn.

The two companies have had an uncertain relationship since 1980 when Beatle George Harrison spotted an advert for Apple Computer in a magazine.

The band had set up Apple Corps in 1968, and they were worried that fans would think the upstart computer manufacturer was something to do with them.

In the end they cut a deal, and agreed to share the trademark and stay out of each other's business.

But then came the multimedia Macintosh, which shipped with a rather provocative system sound titled Sosumi.

Apple Corps did exactly that, and in 1989 they went to court. In the end, they settled for something around $30m and a revised agreement.

Please, please me

When Apple launched the iPod and started running the most successful music download service to date, Apple Corps got a bit upset again.

The court case began at the High Court in February, and has been resolved in favour of Apple Computer.

Bill Thompson
Even though I Saw Her Standing There is a brilliant creation, it built on the work of many other people
However, rumours abounded before the judgement that the two sides were going to cut a deal instead of waiting for a legal opinion, and that part of that will see Beatles music available exclusively on Apple's iTunes Music Store for a six month period.

So far no Beatles songs have been available on legal download services, but the surviving band members are believed to have changed their mind about this recently and to be keen to see it happen.

All it will cost is $25m or so. Or perhaps only $15m - the rumours are rather vague.

Some of the stories circulating are positively silly, like the idea that Paul McCartney might join the board at Apple - useful, perhaps, if they want someone to lead the corporate anthem at board meetings, but hardly a sensible business decision.

The rumours are also, it should be pointed out, denied by both Apples.

But the well-known fact that Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs is a big Beatles fan, allied to the new-found respectability of the digital download services, must give credibility to the tale.

After all, if Beatles albums were available to download then they'd probably be number one in the newly launched download charts, to add to their many other number ones.

Perhaps they could release an online-only album called "Ones. And Zeroes".

I me mine

As it happens, I've got all of my Beatles music on my iPod, because I copied it from the CDs I bought during the 1990s when I spent vast amounts of money replacing my vinyl albums.

Close up of Apple iPod, Apple
The iPod kicked off another row
I wouldn't be tempted by Beatles downloads, because I don't really feel like paying a third time for the same music, especially as it would be lower quality than the CD and come with restrictions on how I could play and copy it.

We should not, however, forget just how much The Beatles like money.

When Apple Corps settled for their $30m back in 1991 few people from my generation, let alone my children's, would have confused the two because nobody had heard of Apple Corps.

And now they want another $15 or perhaps $25m for songs they wrote and worked on over 30 years ago, despite the fact that Paul and Ringo are rich beyond the ambitions of nearly every one of us and John and George are dead.

While it's reasonable that creative artists should be rewarded for their work, this does seem to be rather excessive.

The Beatles have made a lot of money from their fans, and they have in return given many of us a great deal of pleasure.

In the days they set up Apple Corps they were radical hippies who challenged the establishment in many ways.

Wouldn't it be nice if they did the same thing now, and made the music available without rights management systems, under a non-commercial Creative Commons licence that let others reuse their songs?

We can work it out

It would be a wonderful gesture to the future, recognising that the Fab Four only succeeded because they were inspired by those who came before, taking riffs and musical forms from others.

Apple boss Steve Jobs, AP
Jobs is a big Beatles fan
They re-interpreted them, added to them and used them in unexpected ways, but even though I Saw Her Standing There is a brilliant creation, it built on the work of many other people.

Of course it won't happen.

The Beatles want their money, just like the record companies who take 75 cents for every 99 cent iTunes download despite the fact they contribute almost nothing and are selling an inferior product to the CD.

It's an unfair and an unworkable system, but the alternatives rarely get mentioned.

At the In The City music conference last week in Manchester former music journalist Andrew Orlowski put forward a proposal for a flat-fee royalty system.

But his eloquent arguments will have no impact because the music companies that hold the copyright have the law on their side, don't see any reason to change, and like the fact that they currently make more money than anyone else.

It will take a revolution to persuade them to do things differently, a second Napster which may well destroy their business model completely and drive them out of business, instead of just asking them to change the way they work and still stay profitable.

But we can all imagine no digital rights management, can't we. It's easy if you try...


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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