Sheet Music Sharing

While most of the discussion of online music sharing has focused on P2P sharing of MP3 encodings of sound recordings, there is also a scene sharing copies of copyrighted sheet music. Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown decided to take a stand by registering for one of the most popular sheet music swapping sites and asking people trading copies of his sheet music online to stop, with casual, friendly, personal e-mails. He had an exchange with one teenager who wants copies of Brown’s music without having the means to buy it online: Fighting With Teenagers: A Copyright Story

On Jun 28, 2010, at 4:39 PM, Brenna wrote:
Alright, “Mr. Brown” I have a problem and that problem is your fault. I need the sheet music to “I’d Give It All For You” but thanks to your little stunt, I can’t get it. And I cannot just go to the store and buy it. My parents don’t support my theatre all that much and they won’t buy it for me. And I need it pronto. If you’re actually Jason Robert Brown, what can you do to help me with my situation?
On Jun 28, 2010, at 7:43 pm, Jason Robert Brown wrote:
Well, that’s a stupid question, Brenna. If you “needed” to go see Wicked tonight, you’d need to pay the $140 to do it or you just wouldn’t be able to go. And if you couldn’t go, you’d have to go do something else. Likewise, you should pay for things that other people create, or you should content yourself with the free and legal options available to you.
The sheet music costs $3.99, you can download it in one minute, and you’re doing the legal and correct thing. That’s what I can do to help you.

The entire exchange is interesting.
Here is an example of the exact type of creator that copyright law should be protecting — a younger composer still creating works. By having income generated by his copyrighted works, through the sale of sheet music, licensing performances and recordings, it encourages Brown to continue composing and creating more, since he can focus on creating, rather than a day job.
Reposting copyrighted sheet music online doesn’t fall into a copyright grey area, it’s simple straightforward infringement.
Is this a generational divide? As the first generation to grow up with the internet, are today’s teenagers just used to taking information freely off of the internet?
David Pogue shares a letter from MIT Media Lab’s Michael Hawley, who has compliled 15 gigabytes worth of scans of scores. Hawley writes, “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…”
Assuming that most of these are old scores, this is an entirely different issue. It is not piracy or copyright infringement. If these scores are in the public domain, there’s no copyright infringement to scan and publish them online. If students need access to scores, an internet archive of public domain scores are all perfectly legal to host and publish.
Of course, some of these scores may be of works that are out of print, but still protected by copyright. In that case, it’s an orphan works issue, which gets into the more interesting gray areas of copyright law.
And finally, there’s the issue of transcriptions of songs, which we last discussed in 2006 with relation to guitar tabs: Everything Old is New Again, in Bb.