Skip to content

I’ve Got the Music in Me

The NYTimes celebrates the five-year anniversary of the International Music Score Library Project with this feature on conflicts between music publishers and students and scholars who want to share the music that is their passion.  On the whole, the story reflects a dialogue among interested parties that is more measured than what we usually hear in the context of related debates about popular music. 

At the edges, there are echoes of familiar problems:  The musical scores in the project’s archive — the Petrucci Music Library — are meant to be either public domain works or licensed from appropriate copyright owners.  The music publishers can’t complain about either of those things, but they can — and do — argue that copyright might attach to corrections, revisions, and scholarly annotations.  The “revised” scores might be copyrighted derivative works — and because of the inherent difficulty of separating the annotations and revisions from the originals, claims to control rights in the derivative may spill over into practical control of the public domain originals.  This is an old and ongoing concern — of consumers and audiences and new composers — throughout copyright law.  The concerns of publishers are complicated by efforts to protect an adjacent market for music rental (example here).  Intangibles are rarely separated neatly, in practice, from related tangibles.

The IMSLP has musical archive cousins, each of them and all of them, collectively, amounting to what I’d call a commons — a managed pool of shared resources. 

For good measure, here are links to two excellent papers about the history of legal protection for music, by our own Mike Carroll: