Copyright, Public Domain, and Buying Music

One nice feature of this blog is that I can see what search terms have directed people towards this site. Quite often these search strings result in ideas for new posts. The majority of these searches seem completely legitimate, and I am thankful for all of my readers. However, with some regularity I see searches like the following.

“free download [insert standard horn solo title and composer here] sheet music”

Or something to that effect. While I have written about a number of standard works in the horn’s repertoire, I’m not in the habit of posting complete works to this site unless they are 1) my own arrangements and/or 2) in the public domain. To do otherwise would violate copyright law and potentially rob composers and other musicians of the royalties associated with these copyrighted works.  Perhaps I’m being naive, but maybe those people looking for a free copy of Paul Hindemith’s  Sonata in F for Horn and Piano, 1939 (for example) simply don’t know that the work is still under copyright and therefore not in the public domain – or maybe they know and just don’t care.  In either case, they won’t find that work, or complete copies of any other copyrighted works, here. Copyright law can be confusing, and sometimes it isn’t clear what is in the public domain. Fortunately, there are lots of great resources on the web to help sort out the issue of public domain and copyright. In fact, Cornell University has a site devoted to explaining the finer points of copyright law.   If you’re trying to figure out if a work is in the public domain, look no further than their handy guide, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.”  This page contains the most thorough, yet easy to understand, description of public domain and copyright that I’ve seen, and all musicians, writers, artists, etc. should spend some time familiarizing themselves with it.

Ok, so what if you find out that a work is in the public domain, and available on  IMSLP, The Mutopia Project, or another similar site.  Should you still buy your own copy, or download the public domain version? This is a thorny question. Yes, there are advantages to downloading the free version, but public domain copies are often of inferior quality when compared to their commercial counterparts. For example, there are errors and inconsistencies in the IMSLP edition of Kopprasch’s Op. 6 etudes, not to mention the difficult-to-read manuscript. In this instance the free version will work in a pinch, but in the long run it’s preferable to purchase a clear, edited collection like this one by Cornopub, or in the case of the Op. 5 high horn etudes this one by Thompson Edition.  You’ll spend more money up front, but you’ll save yourself time and future headaches.  I’m not trying to turn anyone away from IMSLP or Mutopia – I use them myself – but they aren’t always the most reliable source. Given the choice between downloading a free, but possibly flawed, copy, and supporting a small, independently-owned publisher like Cornopub or Thompson Edition, I’ll always support the publisher. It’s money well spent.

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I think there are a few things going on:
* Copyrights last too long. For the Hindemith case you cited I have a hard time understanding why it still needs copyright protection. It was published in 1939 and the composer died in 1963 (in life+50 countries at least his works enter the public domain in 2014). Copyrights used to be much more reasonable (I think ~56 years was a good length).
* Like you said, copyright law isn’t always clear and many people haven’t researched things enough to know if something is public domain. For example, if Hindemith’s Violin Sonata (pre-1923) is public domain why isn’t the Horn Sonata? There are seeming inconsistencies like the above which are muddy the waters.
* People want to be able to download music. It’s easy and instant. The convenience is part of why IMSLP is so popular. Why aren’t any publishers providing music in a form that people obviously want at a reasonable price? Most costs are up-front in the scanning or re-typesetting labor. E-books suffer the same piracy problems, but they are taking off and making money.
* Music is expensive. Students are poor. The Hindemith Horn Sonata costs about $20.00. (Though if you are in college and short on cash, inter-library loan is your friend.)

I am not defending copyright infringement. Laws should be obeyed. However I believe that the best way to combat these problems is through clear and reasonable laws and business practices.

> I’m not trying to turn anyone away from IMSLP or Mutopia – I use them myself – but they aren’t always the most reliable source.

I’ve done some work for IMSLP and Mutopia. One thing I lament is the lack of comments or reporting back when mistakes are found. Every once in a while I’ll get an email, but it’s less often than I’ve seen them used. If you use one of my typesettings and discover problems let me know so they can become more reliable sources.


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