Dan Whalen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School
Digital-age Beatlemaniacs were feeling fine when Apple Inc. recently announced that its iTunes Store would finally have the band’s catalogue available for purchase. Though widely lamented, the delay has not generally been questioned in light of other industry grievances with iTunes, such as ubiquitous royalty disputes or artists like AC/DC holding out on principle. The true reason is a much more unique story, however, that began with The Beatles’ creation of its own record label, playfully named Apple Corps, in 1968. When the group caught wind of a small computer start-up called Apple from across the pond in 1978, they sued it for trademark infringement.
The lawsuit was settled in 1981 on terms that would set the tone of the two Apples’ professional relationship for the following three decades. In essence, they agreed to share the contentious trademark in entirely separate markets: Apple Corps would not enter the computer industry, nor would Apple Inc. enter the music industry. Nevertheless, border disputes have since arisen. When Apple Inc. released its first computers with a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in 1989, Apple Corps called foul and the two compromised that Apple Inc. would not distribute physical music materials.
Apple Inc. boldly tested this limit with its launch of iTunes in 2003, resulting in another lawsuit. The 2007 settlement finally resolved the weary issue by ceding all Apple-related trademarks to Apple Inc. at a suspected price tag of $500 million, thereby setting the stage for collaboration. Indeed, Apple Corps was the linchpin to the release of the band’s catalogue, the ownership of which is a complicated web involving the original Fab Four, two major record labels, and the estate of Michael Jackson, among others. Issues remain, however. An EMI spokesperson cryptically mentioned that the band’s music would be exclusively available on iTunes through 2011. Also, copyrights for some of the group’s earliest songs will begin to expire at the end of 2012.