06 June 2011

Back to Back-to-Back Bach

Here's some good news:

You can download for free the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. They were recorded by Dr. James Kibbie (University of Michigan) on original baroque organs in Leipzig, Germany. Start with a collection of Favorite Masterworks, or get the complete works that have been divided into 13 groups for easy download.

It's certainly wonderful that everyone can now enjoy the greatest organ works ever written, but there are a couple of points worth noting here.

First, it's not clear what licence is being used for these recordings: there's no mention of Creative Commons options anywhere, so presumably they are under normal copyright, but freely released. That's not ideal, since it limits what can be done with them.

The other thing is that it's extraordinary that such a move is extraordinary. These works were written at a time when music copyright did not exist, and have in any case been in the public domain for hundreds of years. So why is it only now that people can download them in this way?

It is a mark of a civilised society that everyone has free access to its cultural treasures to study and perhaps build upon. The fact that we only have that now for one part of one composer's legacy is truly damning. The reason people don't have instant access to all music is, of course, copyright. Its deadening hand means that not only are copyright works rigorously locked down, but that performances of works in the public domain also rarely get released freely, partly because yet more copyright artefacts are created by such contemporary recreations.

This latest news about Dr Kibbie's generous move only emphasises how poor we really are when it comes to enjoying the immense riches of our culture. (Via @timbray.)

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