Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New websites offering music scores (IMSLP and others) raise copyright, music publishing business model issues

The New York Times, on Tuesday Feb. 22, carried an interesting front page story about published classical music and copyright. This story could be studied in conjunction with many issues in copyright law discussed on my main “Bill Boushka” blog, sometimes involving mass litigation (including the RIAA cases).

The story, by Daniel J. Wakin, is “Free trove of music scores on web hits sensitive copyright note”, link here

The entity of interest is the Internet Music Score Library Project, at this (url) link,  a kind of Wikipedia for sheet music (but there is also “Pianopedia”).  I quickly navigated the a 1+ meg PDF file of the score of the last movement (Adagio) of the Mahler Ninth. Yes, I was rather captivated by all the double flats and other accidentals in a D-flat major score.  It’s rather interesting to look at music your ear knows to see what it would look like if you played it (by sightreading) on a piano. The site provides a disclaimer (which you must click) that it makes no warranty that the file is copyright permitted.

The New York Times gives the legal history of the site, which was down for a while after a cease and desist from Universal Edition in Europe, because it was impossible to determine where the individual infringements lived on the site. But eventually volunteers checked the entire site.

The traditional business model of classical music publishing is partly based on research to provide more definitive editions of established masterpieces which might otherwise simply be public domain. For example, Leonard Bernstein did a lot of research into the orchestration of Robert Schumann.  Many researchers have restored “almost completed” works of Schubert, Mahler (the Tenth Symphony), and Puccini, to name a few.

Music publishers say that revenue from indirect royalties based on research into previous-era composers helps support commissions for new composers. (Young composers need this support supposedly because "It takes a long time to become a good composer.")  Yet some young composers allow their music to be made available under Creative Commons licenses. The business model for classical music must change; it’s rather silly to count on royal weddings to justify big commissions for new works.  (I think Prince William and Lady Kate would do well to use some Schumann, anyway.)   Film might become a better source of revenue if directors were more conscientious: closing credits could be a good place for new concert overtures (like in “Inception”, Hans Zimmer) rather than rambling medleys.

Cottage technology affects music publishing in other ways, as personal computing makes the composition process (hooked to electronic instruments) much more efficient – particularly in the MacIntosh environment with products like Logic and the use of the new iPad.

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