The International Music Score Library Project, commonly known by its acronym IMSLP, is an online repository of free sheet music. It consists of works in the “public domain,” or those whose copyrights have expired. The site has weathered attacks from music publishers since its inception over five years ago, and long-time users will remember an eight month period starting in late 2007 when IMSLP fought a Cease and Desist letter issued by music publisher Universal Edition. Since then, however, the site’s opposition has been relatively harmless—until recently.
On April 21st, GoDaddy—the host of IMSLP—received a DMCA notice from a little-known UK group, the Music Publishers Association, indicating that IMSLP was hosting a piece (Rachmaninoff’s The Bells) that violates US and UK copyright law. GoDaddy responded by removing the IMSLP.org domain, rendering it inaccessible. The action was met with uproar by the IMSLP community, who argued that the claims were unfounded. A day later, the MPA’s request was rescinded and GoDaddy put the site back online.
From a copyright standpoint, it is true that the MPA’s claims were false. The piece was never actually eligible for copyright within the United States, and its copyright in the EU is debatable because of the composer’s nationality. So why all the fuss?
It’s obvious that the IMSLP has some organizations, such as Universal Edition and the MPA, pretty irritated. And who can blame them? Print music sales have been plummeting with the increased availability of online alternatives, and it is unsurprising that publishing companies are biting their nails. But, as the law stands there is little publishers can do; once music is in the public domain, the situation is out of their hands. Still, they contend that quality editions are worth the cost and that declining business is preventing them from publishing more works, including those of modern composers.
It is undeniable that musicians can benefit from this availability of music. Having been in a string quartet, I remember paying $40 or more for a piece’s score and parts. IMSLP gives players access to pieces they may not have otherwise ventured to play, and now it has begun providing public domain recordings in addition to its collection of scores.
Of course, there is some risk associated with free sheet music. I was recently learning a Prokofiev piano work using music from IMSLP, and I noticed that a movement began with the wrong time signature. Fearing other errors, I bought Dover’s publication of the same piece and found that not only was the time signature incorrect, but also there were a few other issues throughout the work. It is not uncommon for scores hosted by IMSLP to be missing pages or be of low scan quality.
Still, it’s hard to ask for more when the music is provided for free. Undoubtedly there will be more strife between music publishers and the providers of free content such as IMSLP, but we can only hope that the final arrangement benefits both players and publishers alike.
IMSLP under attack by Music Publishers Association (UK) via the IMSLP Forums
Free Trove of Music Scores on Web Hits Sensitive Copyright Note, by Daniel Wakin via The New York Times