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]