Does This Punishment Fit the Copyright Crime? - InformationWeek

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Commentary
10/22/2007
09:35 AM
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Does This Punishment Fit the Copyright Crime?

While the RIAA goes after Usenet.com, a Vienna-based classical music publishing firm has succeeded in closing down a modest Web site which made public-domain musical scores available for free. Why? Because the site administrator wasn't an expert in international copyright law.

While the RIAA goes after Usenet.com, a Vienna-based classical music publishing firm has succeeded in closing down a modest Web site which made public-domain musical scores available for free. Why? Because the site administrator wasn't an expert in international copyright law.The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) was not what you would call your typical copyright violators. The site's maintainers made available scanned musical scores that were published at least 50 years after the composer's death -- which, according to Canadian law, puts the scores into the public domain. Unfortunately, in the United States and the European Union, the law extends copyright 70 years after the composer's death, and that extra 20 years has proved IMSLP's downfall. Austrian company Universal Edition sent a letter to the IMSLP demanding that the site pull all offending scores from the EU within two weeks and institute a filtering system to prevent further offenses.

The IMSLP wasn't a commercial venture like Usenet.com or even backed by a foundation like Project Gutenberg. It was a volunteer project by a bunch of music enthusiasts who thought it would be a good thing to make what they thought were public domain scores available to the public at large. So when they were faced with the possibility of fines and/or hefty legal fees, they took the only path available to them -- they closed down the site.

Was Universal Edition within its rights? Yes. Should countries expect their copyright laws to be respected elsewhere in the international community? Absolutely. Back in the 19th century, for example, British composers and writers like W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had their works copied (sometimes in "improved" versions) and performed in the United States without receiving any royalties -- because at the time, U.S. law didn't recognize foreign copyrights.

Despite the logic of the situation, however, I can't help wishing that Universal Edition could have found a way to protect its copyrights without closing down a well-meaning and useful volunteer site. If, as Gilbert's Mikado sings, it could have "let the punishment fit the crime," the IMSLP's punishment would have been much lighter.

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