Technological Impact on Sheet Music and U.S. Copyright Law

In the United States, if you have a piece of sheet music that is copyrighted literally 75 years ago or more, that sheet music is in public domain, meaning you could photocopy it and even sell the photocopies for $1,000 per copy without having to worry about being sued.

When copyrights are violated, publishing companies can easily detect the violation if contemporary music is involved, whether it’s a theme song from Lord of the Rings or a late work of Stravinsky, because obviously there’s no way such music could possibly be printed 75 years ago. But if it’s music of Bach or Liszt, it’s harder to recognize illegal copies since one would have to be able to prove it is from a particular edition that was copyrighted within the past 75 years. If a work is written after 1978, then the copyright lasts for 70 years after the author dies.

Copyright laws are different in other countries. The most extreme example would be China, which has no intellectual copyright law. You can go to China and legally purchase DVDs for movies that haven’t even been released in theaters yet (such as if a critic’s copy gets “leaked” to that market). As you can imagine, lobbyists are working hard to get China to change this. Also, places like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq have no relationship with the U.S. when it comes to respecting U.S. copyright law.

Sheet Music Revolution

Around the year 2001 or 2002, I could see that music festivals and competitions would inevitably have to start rethinking their policies on “photocopied” music. Organizers of these music events could no longer legitimately reject without inspection single sheets of printed music (or, at least, their policies to do so could no longer be based purely on law).  For example, Theodore Presser (sheet music company) produces CD Sheet Music, which allows one to purchase the complete works of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, etc. for prices like $20. When this music is printed out, the music shows that it is printed from CD Sheet Music (and therefore legal).

As another example, the Petrucci Music Library has been around for a long time, and is starting to become commonly known now. Think of it as the Wikipedia for sheet music. Anyone in the world can add sheet music to this online library as long as it’s in public domain. There are people out there who have scanned music and are literally waiting for the exact day it goes into public domain to upload it. Why? Like Wikipedia, there is a sense of excitement when one is filling a void in a world-recognized library.

Why didn’t all of this start happening in the 1980s or 1990s?  The answer is technology.  One single PDF file can often exceed several megabytes, and the first hard drives were only a few megabytes in size.  Now they are being measured in terabytes.  Internet speed is the other critical factor:  one can download or upload several megabytes today in just a few seconds, while years ago it would have taken several hours.  With the massive size of today’s hard drives and the screaming speed of today’s internet connections, technology has changed the way media is shared forever.

But believe it or not, companies benefitting from public domain material is nothing new.  Dover editions have been doing this for decades. When you buy sheet music published by Dover, you are literally buying photocopies of public domain music. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s cheaper to do this than it is to print out the same sheet music yourself on your own paper because of how expensive paper and ink are.  And, some of the best editions I’ve used are Dover since Dover tends to use the best public domain sources they can find. I was lucky enough to buy the Dover edition of Prokofiev’s complete music before it was finally pulled from the market by Russia (now, only his earlier works are available).

An Ethical Dilemma

As you might expect, this phenomenon is cutting into the profits of publishing companies. It poses a dilemma: while composers are almost certainly dead 75 years after a work is published, publishing companies are not. Should one be able to prevent a publishing company from retaining ownership of something the company did in fact create and continues to put to commercial use?

Disney doesn’t just have copyrights on Disney characters. Disney also has trademarks on them. Trademarks never expire as long as the company continues to put their trademarks to commercial use. That’s why Mickey Mouse did not go into public domain in 2003 as it would have if there were no trademark on it. However, the old Mickey Mouse from 1928 may go into public domain in 2028 since Old Mickey wasn’t trademarked. Disney has had to rely on extending copyright on it by 25 years. When the copyright extension runs out, many think that’s going to be it.

This makes me wonder even more if it really is ethical for sheet music to go into public domain if the sheet music continues to be sold by the original company. If a company continues to publish and sell an old edition, it seems to me that this qualifies for “continued commercial use”. As much as I selfishly like Dover, why should Dover be allowed to profit from work they didn’t do?

Despite the new challenges today’s publishing companies face, the one thing still working to their huge advantage is that the editions that are in public domain are often not very good. Editing philosophy 75 or 100 years ago was different than editing philosophy of today. Many years ago, it was fine to just mark up a score as much as the editor wants. The editor did a lot to “interpret” the music. Today, various urtext editions are more commonly used by serious pianists because they can more easily discern what was written by Mozart vs. what was written by the editor. There are some less expensive editions that aren’t bad either, such as Alfred Masterworks and Schirmer Performance editions.  Today, the role of the editor is less to interpret and more to “clarify” or “suggest” without obscuring the composer’s original intent.

I personally enjoy owning original DVDs, CDs, books and sheet music.  Knowing that I am supporting today’s movie producers, actors, recording engineers, musicians, publishers, etc. is a good feeling.  I want to send them the message that hard work is rewarded.  I want great new movies to be produced, and I want great new editions to be published.  Most of all, it’s a different feeling to hold media physically in my hand than it is to view it, listen to it or print it on the computer.  Media feels more valuable to me when it comes packaged as a tangible item.

I just wish that DVDs I purchase wouldn’t have previews on them.

(c) 2010 Cerebroom

About Chad Twedt

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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