How far we’ve come

Welcome to 2010, everyone. The noughties were when the copyright wars got serious. Let’s start the new decade with a little compare and contrast:

The greatest development in music history (Kenneth Woods)

Not long ago, the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) had to go offline under legal threat.

For those of you not in the know, the IMSLP is a library of scanned music in the public domain, uploaded by volunteers and available for anyone to download and print for free. Although the IMSLP has been careful to respect copyright law, they have never been popular with publishers, and when the database’s administrator (Edward W. Guo) was sued by a major publisher, he felt that he could not live with the financial risk and turned the website off.

Fortunately, the music and internet community rallied behind the project and a legal team managed to get the project free from under threat. The IMSLP re-emerged in June 2008, as a useful resource for musicians everywhere.

However, recent developments show that the IMSLP’s re-emergence is not simply a happy development for foks who need to download a missing cello part for a Mozart quartet on short notice. It has proven to be an event of historic significance.

In the early days, the materials on the IMSLP were often of mixed, even dubious, value. Quite a few things were scans of dodgy editions, or home-made parts done with limited proof-reading on less-than-first-rate notation software. All nice for a chamber music reading party, but not of much use professionally.

However, in recent months, incredibly important developments have been rocketing forward at great speed. Most remarkably, if one goes to the pages of any of the Beethoven symphonies, you can find not only the scanned copy of the Dover scores, which have been available for a long time, but professional scans of the manuscripts (where available) the first editions of the scores (often the primary source when the manuscript is lost) and the parts. There are multiple editions of the scores, and transcriptions for 2 hands and 4 hands piano.

Most importantly, the scans of the manuscripts come not from some well intentioned grad student, but from the Beethoven Haus, Bonn, itself. This means the IMSLP is suddenly at the forefront of making available essential and invaluable study and research material to musicians anywhere in the world for free at the touch of a button, and they are doing it in collaboration with leading scholarly institutions. If you think some over-zealous editor has been cheating the facts in your expensive Urtext edition, you can now go straight to the source and see for yourself.

January 1st is National Book Burning Day (Techdirt)

James Boyle is noting that, assuming he would have renewed his copyright, tomorrow is the day that Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 would have gone into the public domain under the law as it was before 1976. But now it won’t be. Instead of the “book burning” found in that book, we’ve created a different kind of book burning. Thanks to lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, we’ve locked up a massive number of works that should be available for all, and the vast majority of which are available for none.

Unlike Fahrenheit 451, the vast majority of the culture swept into this 20th century black hole, was not commercially available and, in most cases, the authors are unknown. The works are locked up — with no benefit to anyone — and no one has the key that would unlock them. We have cut ourselves off from our own culture, left it to molder — and in the case of nitrate film, literally disintegrate — with no benefit to anyone. The works may not be physically destroyed — although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access. Bradbury’s firemen at least set fire to their own culture out of deep ideological commitment, vile though it may have been. We have set fire to our cultural record for no reason; even if we had wanted retrospectively to enrich the tiny number of beneficiaries whose work keeps commercial value beyond 56 years, we could have done so without these effects. The ironies are almost too painful to contemplate.

Happy Public Domain Day. xxx

One thought on “How far we’ve come

  1. I am happy to see someone address this very serious subject. The control of intellectual property in music and the arts generally represents a freezing out of those who are actually working in the same area albeit at a lower level of development. To suggest to a young composer that the works of a master artist are “off-limits” for study and analysis retards the progress of the very people who carry on the tradition. Public Domain use is fair use.

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