Copyright vs curatorship: music publishers and the cultural commons

Anecdotes are emerging in response to my earlier post about the failures of some music publishers adequately to represent their composers that should make alarming reading for anyone concerned about copyright and the cultural commons. In particular, readers are reporting (in comments and on Twitter) stories of publishers who are unaware of  the works in their catalogue, unable to locate works that they say they hold, and even unwilling to sell scores to eager customers.

Perhaps the most disturbing story of all comes from composer Nicholas Chase:

A friend of mine researching Kagel found that Universal lists items they claim Peters has and vice versa – in the meantime those scores have gone entirely lost and neither agency seems interested in the items, even though their loss means those works go unperformed (i.e. no income for the publisher), never mind the musicological horror of missing works. I used to manage a well-known US composer’s library; he himself assumed that publishers would be the repository for his work, but when the US Library of Congress asked for a full-copy of his library, the publishers not only didn’t have scores they advertised and claimed publishing rights to, my mentor had to spend the time and money to track down copies himself. In some cases, these scores simply weren’t to be had. And the publishers didn’t really seem to care. I can’t express the overall anguish we all went through realizing that seminal works from this man’s career simply no longer existed.

Assuming such stories are true this is shocking stuff. Not news, perhaps, to those few who regularly try to buy obscure new music scores (or not so obscure: one correspondent reports the difficulties to be had in getting hold of Xenakis’s Metastasis), but it should be a matter of considerable wider concern that administrative failures such as these are leading to the disappearance of chunks of our cultural heritage. Chunks that, thanks to the copyright lock held on such works by those publishers, means that it is almost impossible for musicians legally to bring those works into public audition.

Yesterday I read a review of the BBC One’s The World’s Most Expensive Paintings and I’m reminded now of the heinous Japanese art collector Ryoei Sato:

In 1990 Saito bought a version of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet for a mega-record $82 million. The following day he also bought Renoir’s Au Moulin de Galette for $78 million. When, shortly after, he faced financial ruin, he threatened to have both paintings cremated with him when he died in order to avoid inheritance tax. He pegged it six years later, and the two paintings’ whereabouts remain unknown.

I’m certainly not saying that music publishers are as villainously self-indulgent as Saito, but I do believe that ownership and control of works of art comes with a degree of responsibility to make them available on request – even if that is, quite reasonably, for a fee. At the very least it comes with a duty to preserve them until the relevant copyright expires and they can be given to the public domain. Saito’s actions have removed two great paintings from the world, possibly for ever. Music publishers are similarly guilty when they lose track of the works that have been entrusted to their catalogue. There are grey areas, of course (private art collections, for example), but I see few that apply to the production and distribution of musical scores. This is an argument against neither copyright, nor music publishers, but a call for those who hold such copyrights, and enjoy their benefits, to balance them with the public responsibility that they entail.

Update, 15 July: Daniel Wolf has written an overview of the pros and cons of self-publishing vs throwing your lot in with a commercial house. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but it ends with a short proto-manifesto for composers and publishers, which includes the commendable suggestion:

should promotion not be carried out by the terms of the contract or should the materials be orphaned by the publisher, all publication rights should revert to the composer.


6 thoughts on “Copyright vs curatorship: music publishers and the cultural commons

  1. Hello Tim,

    well, at the risk of hindering the dissemination of a juicy anecdote, I would like to address the issue of the Kagel works.

    We currently list 59 Kagel works at None of them from what I can see make any reference to Peters. Five other works in our internal database are marked “withdrawn by the composer”. I obviously can’t rule out that mistakes have been made in the past, but this is by far from systematic.

    I hope we can agree that we cannot be expected to provide information about works that we do not publish, although we do of course refer to other publishers if and where we can.

    I fully endorse the sentiment that we have a responsibility to make works available on request. That’s all I’ve observed during my four years here at UE. Our phone number and email address are on our website, and we welcome their fulsome use!

    1. Thanks again for your input and clarifications, Jonathan. Perhaps Kagel has benefitted from the recent website revamp.

      “I hope we can agree that we cannot be expected to provide information about works that we do not publish”

      I certainly do – I think the upshot of the first part of Nicholas’s comment is that it’s actually better when publishers don’t cross-list works, to prevent fruitless searches. And a note somewhere along the lines of ‘works up to Date X are published by so-and-so’ is always very welcome. (I note that UE do tend to include this sort of thing.)

  2. How does legal deposit work on music? I believe that for works of literature published in the United Kingdom the publisher has to give a copy to the British Library, and offer one to the other copyright libraries Does the same apply to the score of musical works?

    1. I don’t actually know whether or not that’s the case, David, but even if it were there are still the issues of obtaining permission to perform the work in question and of getting hold of pages to play from (since libraries like the BL don’t let you take items away and you’re obviously not allowed to photocopy).

  3. I still don’t know what the status of Partch’s scores is.
    You look at the worklist that Schott’s have on their site, and it lists 12 of his works, which includes two versions (neither of them definitive) of the Li Po settings.
    All of his scores are only available on request, and the process of getting hold of a copy of any of them is somewhat laborious. I have tried to get a clear answer from Schott’s about whether or not they hold copyright on all of Partch’s scores or whether it is just those listed on the site and I have received conflicting information.
    Given how influential his work is, why is it impossible to get hold of a score of (for example) the Delusion of the Fury, or On the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, without travelling out to Montclair State or to the University of Illinois?
    And don’t get me started on the availability of Earle Brown’s Folio…

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