The Protection Gap years
One of the most intriguing releases issued during the first decade of Abba CDs is an enigmatic 14-track title simply called Abba and apparently pressed in Japan in the late 1980s.
It comes with a glossy cover, the relevant mechanical copyright stamps and an authentic jewel case but, rather than appearing on one of the majors, appeared on a range of small, previously unheard of, labels.
Despite looking genuine, the release is actually a bootleg produced during the protection gap era – a space in time where early CD bootleggers exploited holes in the copyright laws of some countries, including Japan, to produce legal bootlegs.
Abba: Glossy but unauthorised and exploiting a legal loophole
The whole situation is well described in Clinton Heylin’s “Bootleg! The Rise and Fall of the Secret Recording Industry” but here is a brief summary of what happened:
Basically, up until the early 1990s, Japan’s copyright laws had a glaring hole in them: foreign recordings produced up to October 1978 had no protection from copying.
The loophole meant that anyone could, in theory, produce unauthorised releases by groups such as the Beatles, Abba or the Rolling Stones, which would be legal so long as a payment was made to JASRAC, Japan’s music publishing society.
Thankfully for the record labels, bootleggers are hardly renowned for their legal skills, which meant that for over a decade, this loophole was rarely availed of.
But then in the late 1980s a new generation of more legally astute bootleggers came along and began taking advantage of the loophole, producing numerous titles for not only the domestic market but also for export.
These titles were all well-packaged and the sound tended to be good, having been sourced from vintage reel-to-reel tapes or from legitimate CD releases.
As Heylin outlines in his book (p 246), these titles included “mono versions of The Beatles albums up to The White Album . . . in mini-album jackets, lavish enough to pass through customs with relative ease”.
The Abba album is a textbook example of this type of release. None of the tracks on the compilation were released after October 1978 while the decent sound quality and glossy colour booklet was clearly designed to fool Japanese customs officials.
Indeed, there are two distinct versions of the album out there: a domestic Japanese one with JASRAC symbols and an export version designed to be authorised by SIAE, the Italian mechanical copyright agency, which was regarded by bootleggers as a light touch.
The Japanese domestic pressing of the CD – complete with prominent JASRAC stamp
The export version came with SIAE markings and appeared on a different label
The Japanese protection gap period was unsurprisingly short and sweet as both domestic and international factors quickly put pressure on the government to close the loophole.
On the domestic front, some of the bootleggers became overconfident and began presenting the Japanese customs authorities with titles that clearly couldn’t be legitimately exported.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government came under fierce pressure from the US to do something. These factors eventually led to a new Japanese copyright law, which ended the protection gap from January 1st, 1992.