More on Copyright, Public Domain, and Buying Music

Thanks to some great comments on my earlier post about copyright, I decided to make this a two- parter. “horndude77” posted the following comments to my original post, which inspired some further thinking on my part. This commenter has clearly given the issue some serious thought. In the interest of clarity, I’ve broken up horndude77’s comment into various sections, with my response below each one.

horndude77: 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).

I would assume that in the case of Hindemith’s Horn Sonata, the rights are continually renewed by the publisher, Schott Music. Given that the piece is a major work in the repertoire, and that there are no competing editions out there, it may be some time before the work passes into the public domain. Additionally, wouldn’t the Hindemith estate retain the rights to his works? Or at least the option to renew the copyright?

* 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.

I agree, but I suppose that some kind of a date has to be set for public domain purposes, even if it results in inconsistencies like the one you mention.

* 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.

I think that smaller publishers are catching on to this, and it’s only a matter of time before the major publishing houses start making their libraries available digitally. There will be some logistical and legal issues to overcome, of course, but “e-music” is probably on the way. Perhaps a deal with publishers similar to what Netflix has with movie studios could be worked out.

* 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.)

Trust me, I’m very sympathetic to this issue! However, a useful comparison would be to compare the cost of a college biology textbook with the Kopprasch Etudes, Hindemith Sonata, etc. In reality music is much more economical for students to buy than their other textbooks. I encourage my students to buy their music whenever they can, and put money aside for their solos, etudes, and excerpt collections just as they budget money for their other textbooks. Libraries are great for perusal, and for minor works or those unavailable otherwise.

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.

Agreed! I’m glad that websites like the one Cornell has exist, otherwise I’d be pretty clueless.

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.

This is a great point, and I wonder if it would be possible to create a wiki community – if one hasn’t been created already – devoted to making public domain editions as accurate as possible. It might not be a good idea to make the IMSLP or Mutopia library editable by the general public, but perhaps by a pool of qualified people working together.

Well, there you have my two cents.  I’m no expert on intellectual property, so feel free to take my comments with a grain of salt. This is a fun topic to discuss, so keep the comments coming!

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“* 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).”

The Copyright Term Extension act, which changed the copyright from life +50 or life +75 (for corporate authorship) to life + 70 and life + 95 was directly influenced by the Disney corpration not wanting the “Mickey Mouse” character to be public domain, among a few other things. This directly influenced anything published after 1923 – which would include the Hindemith.


I will just second what Nick said and clarify a bit more. At least to my knowledge, copyright isn’t something that can be renewed by the copyright holder. As Nick pointed out, in 1998 Disney lobbied Congress hard to have the copyright period extended, thus preventing Mickey Mouse from entering public domain and protecting the huge profits they make licensing Mickey to be printed on t-shirts, watches, pencils, underwear, and whatever else. (They’ll probably do it again in 2018.) That law does not apply to works published before 1923, which likely explains why the Hindemith violin sonata (pre-1923) is public domain but the horn sonata (post-1923) is not.


Thanks for the clarification Daren. Now that you and Nick mention it, I do remember reading something about the whole Micky Mouse/Public Domain thing. From what I remember, Disney has been quite “assertive” in protecting their copyright when it comes to Mickey.


Thanks for the response! I think copyright is an important issue to understand because it affects us daily. As others have stated copyright no longer requires renewal and registration is optional. Renewal and registration used to be important parts of the process though. It’s interesting to look at how copyright has progressed over the years in the USA. They started requiring registration and lasting 14 years plus 14 more with renewal up to what we have today. They didn’t even apply to musical compositions then. While some movement was needed toward more protection I truly believe we’ve gone too far in this one direction to the detriment of society. I’d rather more of my money go to contemporary composers and authors rather than dead ones like Hindemith’s estate. (The Schott editions are very high quality though so buy them).

As far as lowering the barrier to participation, a more focused wiki (or forum, or something similar) might help. Though writing an email or editing IMSLP is already pretty easy (but I could see the wiki text be a bit confusing to some). At the very least a group of people could help one another proofread typesettings instead of each acting independently.


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