22 October 2007

Tragedy of the (Music Score) Commons

Here's Wikipedia's info about the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP):

a project for the creation of a virtual library of public domain music scores, based on the wiki principle. Since its launch on February 16, 2006, more than 15000 scores, for 9000 works, by over 1000 composers (as of October 2007) were uploaded, making it one of the largest public domain music score collections on the web. The project used the popular MediaWiki software.

A kind of Project Gutenberg for music - a digital commons, in other words, lovingly put together by hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers, for the greater good.

And here's what has happened:

On Saturday October 13, 2007, I received a second Cease and Desist letter from Universal Edition. At first I thought this letter would be similar in content to the first Cease and Desist letter I received in August. However, after lengthy discussions with very knowledgeable lawyers and supporters, I became painfully aware of the fact that I, a normal college student, has neither the energy nor the money necessary to deal with this issue in any other way than to agree with the cease and desist, and take down the entire site. I cannot apologize enough to all IMSLP contributors, who have done so much for IMSLP in the last two years.

This tragic situation arises because of the discrepancy in copyright terms: what is in the public domain in Canada (where IMSLP is hosted) may still be in copyright in Europe (where Universal Edition is based). But trying to impose European terms on Canadian content is clearly wrong, as Michael Geist rightly points out:

As for a European infringement, if UE is correct, then the public domain becomes an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest single copyright term applying on a global basis. That can't possibly be right. Canada has chosen a copyright term that complies with its international obligations and attempts to import longer terms - as is the case here - should not only be rejected but treated as copyright misuse.

Remind me never to buy a score from Universal Edition again.


spiration said...

I realise this was over two years ago, but I'm intersted to hear from anybody who knows what the legalities are around reproducing a score from scratch - let's call it 'arranging'. I am in the process of working through some scoring of music. Much of it is my own, but some is the work of other people. I am painstakingly reproducing the scores on paper and would like to know what the legal implications would be of sharing those new scores. Note - they are not copied from existing scores by existing publishers. Feel free to contact me at chris at spiration dot co dot uk.

Glyn Moody said...

I'm afraid I don't know, but someone else might.