Columbia Records is one of the "Big Four" record companies. It was originally a retailer of Edison records and phonographs but soon became independent. One of Columbia's early ventures was owning (albeit for a few months in 1927) a small radio network named United Independent Broadcasters, later renamed "Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System". When the company sold the network to William Paley in late 1927, the name was shortened to "Columbia Broadcasting System" (CBS).
After merging with England's Gramophone Company, Ltd. in 1931 to create EMI, they were forced to sell Columbia's US division to Grigsby-Grunow, a foundering electronics company. In 1934, the American Recording Company (ARC) purchased Columbia as a sister label to its main label, Brunswick.
Four years later, CBS bought ARC and almost immediately rejuvenated the "Columbia Records" name. By then, more than one company was using the same Columbia Records trademarks (i.e. the "Columbia" name and its logo, a pair of ascending sixteenth notes) in different parts of the world, a situation that still exists today. This meant that from the 1930's until 1993, EMI could not use the "Columbia" name outside of Europe while CBS could not use the name outside of North America. In Japan, however, the Columbia trademarks were used by Nippon Columbia, once affiliated with the UK Columbia.
Originally, EMI distributed CBS/Columbia product in Europe, but switched to Philips in the 1950's. Eventually, CBS began its own European operations, using the famous "walking eye" logo along with the "CBS" name.
When Sony purchased CBS Records in 1988, they retired the CBS Records label but purchased EMI's rights to the Columbia name. Today, Sony uses the "Columbia Records" name worldwide (except in Japan, where the rights are owned by Columbia Music Entertainment, an independent company unaffiliated with Sony or EMI) and uses the "walking eye" as its primary logo.
In December 2006, the CBS Corporation announced the reactivation of the CBS Records label, with the famed CBS eye as its logo. This version of CBS Records is a minor label, mostly concerned with recordings related to its TV operations.
In FZ lore, CBS distributed Zappa product beginning in 1979 outside North America but by 1981 CBS was FZ's worldwide distributor. By 1984, FZ moved his post-Warner Catalog to EMI, which promptly reissued the albums.
In the US, Columbia was the first distributor for Barking Pumpkin Records. Outside the US, FZ's albums and singles appeared on the CBS label, with Canada opting to use Columbia's Epic label, the only country to do so.