Universal Edition force closure of IMSLP

This is horrible news. After receiving a second cease and desist letter from Universal Edition’s representatives in Canada, the administrator of the International Music Score Library Project has felt it necessary to close the entire site. There is much comment within the IMSLP forums.

The IMSLP was a wiki-repository of public domain musical scores. There are other similar sites around the web, but IMSLP had the highest profile, and was one of few to take its responsibilities towards copyright seriously. Scores were added to the database by users, but any that fell outside the public domain were quickly removed; copyright notices were also displayed throughout the site architecture. Although, as a twentieth-century specialist, I had little need to use the IMSLP, I still knew it as one of the great classical music sites on the web, and a shining example of the power that web 2.0 was capable of: many users report that IMSLP was often the only place they were able to find scores that neither libraries nor publishers were able to supply. It was, let’s face it, a highlight of the ‘well-tempered web‘.

Universal Edition are, of course, within their rights to demand that certain scores be removed – Bartók and Schoenberg are among the names mentioned (C+D letter available as a 1.1MB pdf here). I imagine that they are also within their rights to ask for the complex IP filtering procedures that they request for IMSLP should it wish to continue. But the point is: they didn’t have to. IMSLP took its copyright responsibilities seriously. Some sort of approach could have been made – and very likely accommodated – without having to resort to legal strong-arming.

The IMSLP was not some wild west web hub for mass copyright infringement. It provided a service that was valued by performers, libraries, universities and musicologists: people and institutions who contribute to musical activity, rather than simply consume it. It’s one thing for faceless media conglomerates to attack their users, as the big record companies are so fond of doing (and I’ve written many times on this blog how distasteful and ill-advised I find this), but it’s extremely distressing to see a classical music publisher acting against the interests of those whose lives are spent in the dissemination, creation, promotion and celebration of the musical tradition on which that publisher bases its commercial livelihood.

Because of the score, classical music is different from popular music: pirate Justin Timberlake CDs pulled off a filesharing site are worth a lot of money to an unscrupulous pirate, this we know. A pirate Bartók score is worth close to zilch: it is only in performance that any real money is actually made (along with the nice bonus that a room full of people get to listen to Bartók too). UE (or Boosey and Hawkes, or Editio Music Budapest, depending on which Bartók score and where you’re hearing it) still get to collect performance royalties in the usual way.

The vast amount of IMSLP activity was not losing UE – or any other publisher – any money; all of that activity will have aided the promotion of classical music (something that, as many commentators agree, the classical music industry is not terribly good at doing on its own). Publishers are entitled to – and should – defend their copyrights, but a more understanding approach would have done no harm here, and would have saved a lot of harm now done.

Just for the record, music copyright in Europe expires 70 years after the author’s death. These are the names listed in the UE cease and desist letter.

Béla Bartók (d. 1945)

Alban Berg (d. 1935)

Ignacy Friedman (d. 1948)

Leos Janáček (d. 1928)

Gustav Mahler (d. 1911)

Joseph Marx (d. 1964)

Ottorino Resphighi (d. 1936)

Arnold Schoenberg (d. 1951)

Richard Strauss (d. 1949)

Karol Szymanowski (d. 1937)

Alexander Zemlinsky (d. 1942)

[Links to more coverage here]

8 thoughts on “Universal Edition force closure of IMSLP

  1. I think UE was being rash as well, but blame more our infinitely bloated copyright protections (most of which were introduced to extend corporate “product” monopolies, NOT protect the idividual artist).

    Besides the life/death-plus-whatever-years issue, any site would need to identify the specific edition of the work. That piece by Mozart is definitely in the public domain, but a publisher’s edition of it, made anytime after about 1923, would still be fully protected.

  2. That’s true Steve, and it raises an even greater problem: since in theory any published work (particularly a musical score) may have a still-existing copyright in that edition, the site administrator would do well to hold off posting anything until an editor had been located and permission (if needed) secured. However, this a three stage process:

    1. Is the score in a copyrighted edition
    2. Who holds that copyright
    3. What are their contact details

    All three stages of which are very-hard-to-nearly-impossible to determine. (See Orphaned works.) Meaning that once companies like UE start aggressively pursuing such copyrights, it’s essentially impossible to be sure whether a score actually is in the public domain or not (even if it is) and thus you’re always taking a risk. I wouldn’t blame anyone for deciding that the risk isn’t worth it. And thus, in an age of unprecedented public access to public domain materials, the public domain is forcibly squeezed out of existence.

  3. Everybody (at least everybody *my* age) who studied music has to know the publisher Kalmus. Their whole business was selling reprints of scores that had lapsed into public domain. Most were reprints of 19th-century editions. The few “modern” works were things like Stravinsky’s early Chester-edition pieces, that had also lapsed (though there were also some Shostakovich, that while even more recent, probably weren’t protected at the time by more global agreements). In a way, Kalmus were my time’s IMSLP; incredibly cheap scores that even poor composition students could get by the armful.

    Copyright of a particular piece or idea was originally *never* envisioned to last until the death of the artist, much less 70 years past! The original idea was two-fold. First, it was to provide creative incentive by making sure the creator could count on some exclusivity and so personal return, making it worthwhile to innovate and take a risk. But the original intention was to make sure that exclusivity was for a reasonably short term only. The incentive then was that, while the piece could provide the creator with some profit, they would also be motivated to keep working towards new creations, since they knew that there was a end to the gravy train. At the expiration, others would then be free to apply their own creativity to the original while it was still a valuable idea, to elaborate and modify it into something new and very much their own. We can see that the main idea was *not* to protect profit, but to stimulate the general growth of art and ideas, to keep the creative pot stirred.

    The entire idea was subverted even more when it became normal for the artist’s copyright to be assigned to the publisher. In utopian theory, the arrangement helped let the publisher take care of control distribution, promotion, and bookkeeping for the artist, while taking their percentage for the service and passing the rest back to the artist. In practice it’s become a devil’s bargain, where the primary benefactor becomes the publisher, not the creator. The art (and artist, really) become simply the “product”; the lion’s share of the money goes to a circle of businesses handling the “product”, and their only thought is for how they can maximise their exclusive hold on that “product”.

  4. The forced closure of IMSLP is in my opinion, dare I say, intrinsically evil and frankly I cant see what good, if any, can come out of this.Thanks to the dedicated work of a few enlightened individuals an incredible facilitation to the learning process of future artists was developed.Only Canadian intelligence could have given birth to Glenn Gould.and this project.I wonder what he would think of all this? Its ironic that you can read any book thats ever been written in a library and this is especially useful if you cant afford to buy books, live rurally or are an impecunious student.So why not a long overdue internet international music library?It is a fact that cheaper editions are becoming more and more difficult to acquire.What, for instance, happened to the Konemann Music Budapest editions of Bach et al?It doesnt take much imagination to arrive at the foregone conclusion that there are obviously some very greedy individuals emerging from the music publishing woodshed who have, yet again, temporarily managed to impede the progress of music education and deprived thousands of music lovers of the intellectual joy and satisfaction of researching music in the privacy of our own homes.

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