No Easy Answers in the Copyright Debate
By DAVID POGUE
Published: July 8, 2010
You’d think it’d be pretty easy to live within the copyright laws, or at least to understand them: If you want something of value, you pay for it.
Ken Blaze for The New York Times
But two things happened this week that are enough to rattle anyone who thinks it’s that simple.
First, I was alerted to a blog post by Jason Robert Brown. He’s a songwriter and the composer of Broadway musicals like “13,” “The Last Five Years” and “Parade.” (I knew him when he was just starting out and I was still working on Broadway.) He became alarmed at how many pieces of sheet music to his songs were available for free, illegal download online. And after tolerating it for years, he finally tried an experiment.
He contacted each person on the download board like this: “Hey there! Can I get you to stop trading my stuff? It’s totally not cool with me. Write me if you have any questions; I’m happy to talk to you about this.”
You can read the full story here. But in short, one articulate young lady decided to push back, explaining her rationale for downloading his songs. What follows is a lengthy, sometimes testy back-and-forth-and an even lengthier, more passionate torrent of discussion in the comments for his post.
In the end, I side with Mr. Brown. One of his songs costs $4 in sheet-music form; that doesn’t seem unreasonable. His teenaged challenger’s argument is that her parents don’t support her singing career — but I don’t see why it’s Mr. Brown’s obligation to sacrifice on her behalf.
I was pretty sure of myself — until I heard from my friend Michael Hawley, formerly of the M.I.T. Media Lab, now a digital-media researcher, award-winning pianist and polymath. After reading Mr. Brown’s account, he wrote to explain why he thinks sheet-music pirating is O.K., or even necessary.
Here’s what he says:
=====I play the piano. Over the years, I have collected 15,000 piano scores in PDF form, covering about 400 years of classical keyboard works.
It’s like lint in the drier of the Internet. Much of it is not available anywhere for purchase, or even findable in libraries for circulation. Max Reger’s arrangement for two pianos of Wagner’s overture, for instance? Well, the Max Reger Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany has a copy…
The last classical sheet music store in New York, Patelson’s, went out of business recently. The recession finished them off. It was THE place to go to buy piano music. When I was in high school, I used to go there for hard-to-find scores by Granados or Medtner, and then hit the Carnegie Deli for some pastrami. Amazing, isn’t it? New York City doesn’t have an independent store that sells classical music scores.
Fortunately, over the last ten or fifteen years, amateur pianists have been scanning the contents of their grandmother’s piano benches, and… voilà. A million monkeys typing don’t get you Shakespeare, but a million monkeys scanning — that makes a dent. I began collecting this stuff as a hobby. One day, I looked at my pile of music score bits. In those days, 15 gigabytes was most of my hard drive. But it was all there. All of Bach. All of Scriabin. All of Rachmaninoff.
At the Van Cliburn piano competition, a couple years ago, I gave tiny thumb drives to some of the winners and said, “Enjoy.” Each thumb drive was smaller than my pinky but contained was the whole 15 GB trove. It blew their minds. Basically, every significant piano piece is in the pile.
What happened is, the classical piano sheet music publishing world plotzed a long time ago. But thanks to the monkeys, a lot of DNA has been preserved and is more available now than ever before. The monkeys aren’t as well organized as the Wikipedia minions, but someday they will be.
When the publishers, composers, music stores have long since gone out of business, when the libraries don’t have the stuff, the internet quickly becomes the Sargasso sea for catching this stuff. Not saying that your songwriter friend’s points aren’t completely valid — of course they are. As slippery as digital rights are, the fact is that digital publishing probably gives people more ways to make more money and reach far wider audiences than the paper-based music publishing racket ever did. But copyright, like the people who originate the material and the industries that promulgate it, has a lifespan. I think the classical piano sheet music world gives a glimpse of the end state — out of the ashes of the music business, comes the rebirth of the musician business (as John Perry Barlow once said). It also, more importantly, shows what happens when a society does a poor, random job of preserving their cultural heritage to nurture future generations. Generally, I side with the teenagers.