Online Music Scores Cause Copyright Controversy

The Borromeo String Quartet has gone digital. No more paper sheet music. No more furious page-turning timed with exact precision to keep from missing a note. No more fear of compositions falling off the music stand or pages sticking together. Because when the Borromeo String Quartet plays a concert, they read the sheet music directly from their MacBooks. The backlit screen provides adequate lighting, and the musicians turn “pages” by tapping a connected foot pedal. But where does this laptop-friendly music come from? One of the Borromeo String Quartet’s primary sources is the International Music Score Library Project, an online haven for public domain and Creative Commons-licensed music scores and recordings.

IMSLP was started in 2006 by Edward W. Guo, a musician with a passion for making sheet music available worldwide through the Internet. Guo grew up studying music in China, where he became frustrated with the lack of available scores. When his family moved to Canada, Guo was overwhelmed by the music suddenly available to him, and he began to harbor the desire to make such a plethora of scores accessible to everyone, regardless of region or country. At the age of 19, he made his dream a reality with the International Music Score Library Project. This wiki-based website now boasts over 162,000 scores from more than 7,000 composers. Volunteers scan and upload scores, and administrators check the scores to make sure that IMSLP is not violating copyright laws in making them available for download.

And the best part? The website is completely free. Users can donate money if they feel so inclined, but IMSLP charges no fees to download its content or become a member. Beethoven, Bach, Mozart—all the public domain greats are there. It’s a poverty-stricken music student’s dream. Instead of spending $10-$50 to purchase scores from a traditional sheet music vendor, poor musicians all over the world can download classical music scores for free.

Not so fast.

Not everyone is happy about the International Music Score Library Project. Some music publishers are grumbling about potential revenue losses. Ed Matthew, senior promotion manager for a New York company, complained, “I don’t know if I would call it a threat, but I do believe it hurts sales.” In 2007, Universal Edition, a European-based music publisher, did more than grumble. The company threatened to slap IMSLP with a cease-and-desist order for copyright violations. Mr. Guo complied, temporarily taking down the website. He had volunteers check every score for possible copyright violation and then relaunched the website with a disclaimer that states, “All scores submitted to IMSLP either belong to the public domain, or permission has been granted by the copyright holder to host them here. The copyright status of every file is marked, and it is clearly indicated if it is not legal to download a file in the EU.”

Although copyright laws are not as strict in Canada (where IMSLP is based) as they are in Europe, the website can’t just follow Canadian laws and call it a day. Guo and IMSLP have to be aware of the copyright laws in other countries. Public domain in Canada is not necessarily public domain elsewhere. But keeping abreast of copyright law around the world is arguably an impossible task. “We cannot know the copyright laws of 200 countries around the world,” Mr. Guo complained in a 2011 interview with the New York Times.

I agree. How can any Internet company, in this age of world-wide communication and commerce, be expected to follow the copyright laws of every country it conducts business in? In our WikiLeaks/Julian Assange class discussion and readings, we saw a man who has taken advantage of the differences in countries’ laws. Assange admits that he bases his WikiLeaks operation in Sweden because it “gives the information providers total legal protection. It is forbidden according to Swedish law for any administrative authority to make inquiries about the sources of any type of newspaper.” (This quote is from the WikiLeaks Wikipedia page, not from Assange directly.)

It seems to me that if companies can use countries’ law differences to their advantage, and other companies like IMSLP are constantly looking over their shoulder to keep ahead of possible copyright infringement, there must be a problem somewhere. The Internet is not a country; it’s a conglomeration, a blurring of boundaries. So why not make worldwide laws strictly for the Internet? Or at least attempt to find a middle ground that doesn’t chain the Internet beast to one particular country or another. It seems ridiculous to try to pin the Internet down to certain countries, to say, “I don’t care how they do it in Canada! This is Austria and our rules are different!” Therefore, I make the radical (and probably wildly unpopular) suggestion that countries work together to create a blanket set of laws for the Internet, applicable no matter where in the world the company or its users are.

But when it’s all boiled down, the heart of the copyright issue is money. Companies like Universal Edition are angry about losing profits from selling works already in the public domain. Why the fuss over works out of copyright anyway? Because websites like IMSLP are making them more accessible and user-friendly. Mr. Guo told the New York Times, “In many cases these publishers are basically getting the revenue off of composers who are dead for a very long time….We want people to have access to this material to foster creativity. Personally I don’t feel pity for these publishers.”

In his book Free Culture, Lawrence Lessig made the argument that “the law’s role is less and less to support creativity, and more and more to protect certain industries against competition.” What a perfect case of controlling competition. Universal Edition threatened to shut IMSLP down and forced Guo to take the website down for rehaul. Why? Fear of losing profits.

In all fairness, Universal’s promotion manager, Jonathan Irons, raised several good points in support of the continued sale of public domain works. He argued, “You’re paying for something that’s worth more than the paper you’re receiving,” pointing to the benefits of additions such as scholars’ corrections and interpretation of the composer’s intentions. I concede that sometimes the extras are worth it, and sometimes an author’s raw works need a little scholarly tweaking.

But is it nice to threaten someone who is merely spreading the availability of scores whose copyrights have already expired? My advice? If you’re selling a public domain work, add something valuable to it. Make the binding exquisite, or add an inspired foreword, or print it on 24-karat-gold paper. Make it worth the purchase. But don’t whine if some people still prefer to download the free copy instead.

To me, the silver lining to this whole story is the outgrowth of IMSLP’s attention. Even as the website attracted negative publicity and threats from music publishers, it has begun to attract a following of new artists who want to make their compositions available on IMSLP through Creative Commons licenses. The website is growing rapidly, and artists who want its many visitors to download and promote their music are flocking to add their original compositions and recordings to IMSLP. Creative Commons is the wave of the future and, in the words of “The copyleft movement…”’s Sharee L. Broussard, “is much more in sync with the way online communities operate.” Hooray to the music composers who upload their new scores to IMSLP. Creative Commons for all. Lessig would be proud.

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