There is no question that some of the site’s music scores would infringe European copyright law if sold or distributed in Europe. However, the IMSLP had no real or substantial connection – the defining standard for jurisdiction – with Europe.
Indeed, if Universal Edition were to file a lawsuit in Austria, it is entirely possible that the Austrian court would dismiss it on the grounds that it cannot assert jurisdiction over the Canadian-based site (and even if it did assert jurisdiction, it is unlikely that a Canadian court would uphold the judgment).
And on why this stuff matters:
This case is enormously important from a public domain perspective. If Universal Edition is correct, then the public domain becomes an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest copyright term applying on a global basis.
Moreover, there are even broader implications for online businesses. According to Universal Edition, businesses must comply both with their local laws and with the requirements of any other jurisdiction where their site is accessible – in other words, the laws of virtually every country on earth. It is safe to say that e-commerce would grind to a halt under that standard since few organizations can realistically comply with hundreds of foreign laws.
Thousands of music aficionados are rooting for the IMSLP in this dispute. They ought to be joined by anyone with an interest in a robust public domain and a viable e-commerce marketplace.