Monday, October 22, 2007

IMSLP: The End of Canadian Copyright?

A Canadian musical Project Gutenberg was taken down on Friday in the most disturbing of stories. The International Music Score Library Project allowed users to post copyright-expired sheet music online. The project was run by a student for the most honorable of reasons:
"As a musician and music lover, I find unacceptable the fact that such a wonderful thing as music can be so inaccessible in certain regions of the world. I believe that access to our culture and the Arts is a fundamental right of every human being, and not simply a privilege. Therefore, I had created IMSLP with the intention that music, which is in the public domain, should be freely accessible to every single person."
By accounts (Michael Geist and Howard Knopf give very good ones), the site fully complied with Canadian copyright law, where the copyright term is life + 50 years, because it only published the music of composers dead longer than that. The problem? Universal Edition AG argued that the site was infringing copyright in other countries, where copyright is life + 70 or even life + 100 (Mexico) years.

The site, however, is in Canada, run by a Canadian. By accounts (Michael Geist and Howard Knopf again), the site therefore is therefore subject to Canadian law - not European or American or Mexican law.

If the Universal Edition AG logic takes hold, it means that Canadian copyright laws don't matter on the Internet. It means that Canadians would be obliged to comply with whatever the highest, most absurd level of copyright protection in the world happens to be, no matter what Canadian law might say about it. Either that, or Canadians could wall-up Canadian web sites so that other high-protectionist countries can't access them.

The student who ran IMSLP can't fight Universal Edition AG. His call for others to take up the torch and keep IMSLP online is moving and inspiring and hopefully will lead to a bigger fight.

As a Canadian, I have a certain satisfaction in knowing that Canada, so far, has stuck with life + 50. And, as a former music student, I also know how very expensive sheet music is (including online; I've written elsewhere about crappy online sheet music stores). Even that which is "in the public domain" is accessible only to the very privileged and quite unaffordable to most music students. I don't know how many music books I've left at the store; the prices are astronomical. Even home-written guitar-tab sites are also being shut down by music publishers.

If Universal cared about music, it would be offering to sponsor this site with ads, not shutting it down, along with Canadian copyright sovereignty.