SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bob Dylan has made some moves in his epical career that have left a few people puzzled. But the compilation that Mr. Dylan's record label recently released may be as odd as anything that he's ever put out. The label released a limited edition of the four-CD set, and only in Europe. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the collection seems designed to exploit a recent change in European copyright law.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The collection is a scrapbook of recordings from the first years of Bob Dylan's career - unreleased home tapes, live performances from Greenwich Village folk clubs, and out-takes from the sessions for "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIXED UP CONFUSION")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) I got mixed up confusion, man, and it's a-killing me...

ROSE: The packaging of this 50th anniversary collection is minimal: just four discs, a brown paper cover, and a cursory list of the 86 tracks. Dylan's record label declined requests to talk about the collection, or its unconventional release strategy. But the subtitle - "The Copyright Extension Collection, Volume 1" - speaks for itself.

JAMES BOYLE: Even record executives occasionally stray into honesty. This is, in fact, a copyright extension collection. That's what it is.

ROSE: James Boyle teaches law at Duke University. He says Dylan's label appears to be exploiting an obscure, but potentially lucrative, change in European copyright law. The European Union recently extended the term of copyright for sound recordings, from 50 years to 70. But, says Boyle, there's a catch.

BOYLE: You actually have to have, at some point, distributed these songs during that initial, 50-year period. And these were masters that were lying in the vaults. And none of them had ever seen the light of day. And so he had to get them out before that 50-year period expired, in order to get the extra 20 years.

ROSE: Since this material was recorded in 1962 and '63, the label basically has to use it or lose it - and watch it enter the public domain. In Britain, the EU copyright extension is known as Cliff's Law - after Sir Cliff Richard, the 1960s-era singer who pushed hard for its passage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE YOUNG ONES")

SIR CLIFF RICHARD: (Singing) The young ones, darling, we're the young ones, and the young ones shouldn't be afraid...

ROSE: In an interview with the BBC, Richard said it's not fair that artists should lose the right to collect royalties from their records just because those records happen to be 50 years old.

RICHARD: That's my creative juices. I created it, I helped to arrange it. I helped, sometimes, to produce it. And you make this record, and then someone takes it away before you're even dead.

ROSE: But critics say the copyright extension will mainly help record companies; and artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Who; whose recordings might otherwise begin entering the public domain in the next few years. The vast majority of musicians won't see a dime, says Duke's James Boyle.

BOYLE: The stated goal was a kind of well, it'll be a kind of pension for old rockers, which is certainly something I can get behind. But the evidence was that in fact, the benefits would go to very, very few people - the megastars. Mr. Dylan will probably do quite well out of it.

ROSE: Boyle says the EU law does include a few provisions that are supposed to help common musicians, too. After 50 years, for example, they can terminate their original contracts with their record labels, and get ownership of their recordings back. But Boyle says there's a catch here, too.

BOYLE: In order for them to be able to exercise this termination, it had to be that the record label hadn't put a new version out within a year of the directive passing. So we're probably going to see a large number of reissued songs; or aging rockers are going to be terminating their deals, and getting their rights back over their recordings.

ROSE: Whatever its intentions, Boyle thinks the copyright extension will ultimately wind up hurting the public, though Bob Dylan fans in Europe might beg to differ. They can buy MP3s of the "Copyright Extension Collection" from Dylan's website. And so would lucky European collectors who snatched up 100 physical copies of the discs. The rest of us can bid for one of those copies on eBay, where one recently sold for more than $1,000, or wait for a proper U.S. release.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY JUST ALLOW ME ONE MORE CHANCE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Just allow me just one more chance...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY JUST ALLOW ME ONE MORE CHANCE")

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