A Dispute over Master Tapes Ends in the Beatles’ Favor

By: Niti Parthasarathy*| Guest Writer

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On July 26, a New York judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Sid Bernstein Presents, LLC, which represented Sid Bernstein, a late businessman and promoter. Bernstein promoted the Beatles’ 1965 show at Shea Stadium and produced the original 1966 film that used footage from the concert. Apple Corps Ltd., the band’s company, and Subafilms, acquired the rights to the footage through a contractual agreement with Bernstein. Though Sid Bernstein Presents noted the deal when filing the lawsuit, the company claimed that the rights to the master tapes remained with Bernstein and also claimed sole ownership over the footage. The sole ownership claim arose from Bernstein’s role as producer of the original film, and plaintiffs claimed that Apple Corps Ltd. infringed on Bernstein’s copyright when the footage was used in the 2016 documentary “Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.”

The situation raises questions of who owns a copyright, and whether joint ownership of a master can be contractually waived. Joint authors are multiple people who co-own and have rights to a copyright. When two or more authors contribute to a work in such an interdependent way that their contributions cannot be separated, the work is considered joint and the authors considered joint authors. Though the term uses the word “author,” others involved in the recording or production of the masters can argue that their work counts as a copyrightable contribution that makes them joint owners.

Who can potentially argue for joint ownership of a master? Though it seems like artists should own their own masters, since they are the ones who created or performed the work, masters can be co-owned by people other than the artist. For example, where a work is made for hire, the commissioning organization could be considered a joint author. As reflected in the case above, producers can argue that their knowledge and contribution of direction, coaching, supervision, and editing is enough involvement to qualify as a joint owner. Because of producers using their involvement to claim joint ownership of masters, many artists have used contract law to circumvent joint copyright and to specify that ownership remains with the artist rather than with the producer.

In July, Bernstein Presents discovered that the Beatles were planning to re-release the remastered Shea Stadium footage. The company reached out to the Copyright Office and filed a complaint. The company also reached out to Apple Corps. and Subafilms to negotiate ownership. Apple Corps. and Subafilms, who registered their copyright in 1988, refused. In dismissing the suit, the New York judge noted that no matter how much Sid Bernstein may have been involved with the concert, the 1965 contract “reserves no rights whatsoever for Bernstein in any filming or recording of the concert.”

“The relevant legal question is not the extent to which Bernstein contributed to or financed the 1965 concert; rather, it is the extent to which he ‘provided the impetus for’ and invested in a copyrightable work – e.g., the concert film,” the judge wrote. Essentially, the court found that even if Bernstein’s contributions were substantial enough to warrant a finding of joint authorship, his rights had been contractually waived by the contract signed in 1965.

Niti Parthasarathy is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Comparative Students from Duke University. Upon graduation, she intends to practice corporate law.