Elvis release pulled in copyright row

LONDON (Billboard) - Music distributor Cargo Records has pulled the plug on an Elvis Presley release after the singer’s label threatened legal action, sources said.

A live band backs up a virtual Elvis during a memorial concert of Elvis footage in Memphis, Tennessee, August 16, 2007. Music distributor Cargo Records has pulled the plug on an Elvis Presley release after the singer's label threatened legal action, sources said. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

In one of the clearest signs of Sony BMG Music Entertainment’s tough policy on enforcing the copyright of its vintage Presley works -- even though some sound recordings have become part of the public domain -- the label pressured Cargo to withdraw “New York: RCA Studio 1: The Complete Sessions”.

Sony BMG disputed that a handful of outtakes on the album, which was released by Memphis Recording Service, were public domain.

A Cargo executive, who declined to be identified, described a letter from Sony BMG as a “warning.” “To save us the risk of legal action, we decided we wouldn’t distribute the item,” the executive said.

But the set is still featured on the Cargo Records Web site, with a February 25, 2008, release date indicated. The CD features such tunes as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog”, as well as multiple takes of “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy”.

Memphis Recording Service director Joseph Pirzada said in an interview that he responded to Sony BMG on behalf of Cargo three times since the letter was received five or six weeks ago but had heard nothing in response.

“I’ve not received a letter, an e-mail or any telephone calls,” he said. “I told Sony BMG they were wrong, and that the outtakes on the CD were recorded before June 1, 1957. Which means it is in the public domain.”

He added, "I'm not worried and I haven't been worried." His company sells the product at its Web site (here). But he said Sony BMG's action had "thrown a spanner in the works".

A Sony BMG spokesman declined to comment in depth on the issue, other than to confirm “that we are in correspondence with them” on the matter. The spokesman added, “it is our policy to keep close scrutiny on any third parties who are thinking of releasing Elvis recordings assuming them to be in the public domain when they may in fact not be.”

Memphis Recording Service made headline news in the summer when its Presley release, “My Baby Left Me”, entered the UK Singles Charts at No. 19, becoming the first out-of-copyright recording to be a UK Top 40 hit. The song was originally recorded by Presley in 1956 and thus entered the public domain on January 1, 2007.

Despite furious lobbying from the music industry, the government recently backed a recommendation that the copyright term for sound recordings should remain at 50 years. In the United States, copyright extends for 70 years after the death of author.