Admittedly, I rarely feel compelled to write about important things, such as law, politics and the economy. Although this is frighteningly ironic for obvious reasons, I refrain from talking about such matters for the simple reason that I don't want to look like an idiot. However, there are some occasions where the interwebbing liberties of so many are most drastically impeded.. that in spite of my fear of exposing such ignorance, I have to speak out about the legal issues arising from the closure of the International Music Score Library Project.
For those who never became acquainted with the resource, the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) was one of the largest public domain music score collections on the interweb, amassing 15,000 scores, for 9,000 works, by over 1,000 composers. Structured around the collaborative Wiki template, this immense library was predominately made up of scans of old musical editions that were out of copyright. Far from being just a digital repository, the IMSLP was evolving into an incredible musicological encyclopedia which offered the possibility of understanding the progressive editorial development of single compositions. Within two years of its launch, the site became an invaluable resource for musicians and music schools the world over, attracting a million visitors a day.
The site's project leader, part-time Canadian music student Feldmahler had ensured that the music scores that were posted on the site were clearly in compliance with Canadian law. Review mechanisms had been implemented so as the works that were on the site were in the public domain - meaning that the copyright on compositions expired 50 years after the death of the composer. However, in October 2007, the IMSLP closed following legal threats made by Austrian classical music publisher, Universal Edition. Their cease-and-desist letter requested the removal of certain works from the site that infringed European copyright law, requiring that material remains protected for 70 years after the death of the composer. Following the threat of imminent litigation, the IMSLP shut down - despite the fact that Universal Edition lacked any material jurisdictional basis to assert the removal of such material.
While thousands have been mourning the loss of such an incredible resource, many have also been ruminating upon the potential ramifications of the closure upon the public domain. Michael Geist predicts that the public domain could potentially become an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest single copyright term applying on a global basis. I can't help but fear the same thing, namely because copyright protection, particularly in the US, has been progressively expanding to the detriment of the public domain. However, it makes sense that the law would wish to prolong the intellectual property rights in favour of the "dead owner". If we look at the nature of classical music publishing, in particular, it's easy to recognise that a site such as the IMSLP threatens the very existence of their industry. Namely because the classical music publishing industry has been profiteering from the work of composers who have been dead for hundreds of years.
So down with you Universal Edition. Down with you classical music publishing houses. Down with you overly-litigious fatcats who perpetually extend the monopoly on work that is not rightfully your own. Seriously. Down with you all.
Saint-Saëns - Introduction and Rondo capriccioso performed by Isaac Stern
UPDATE: The IMSLP is back online! This entry is rendered musically redundant. Now let's get back to that classical music piracy, shall we?