public domain music trouble

Posted on October 22, 2007 by | Posted in News | Comments: 7 Comments on public domain music trouble

I was on a panel about copyright at the media and democracy conference, with Tina Piper and Owen Chapman. Someone asked about Public Domain music, and I said, yes there is a site, but I can’t remember what.

Well, via Geist, it appears the International Music Score Library Project, a volunteer, non-profit public domain music score project (canadian too), has been shut down, we hope temporarily because of nasty letters from a Toronto Law firm, engaged by an Austrian music publisher, Universal AG.

The substance of the claim is that while much of the music *is* public domain in Canada, it is not public domain in the EU, and because is a web site that does not restrict where downloaders are coming from, then it is in violation of copyright law. Essentially this would mean that wherever in the world the longest copyright term exists, that term must be applied in all countries, regardless of the copyright laws in host country. Which, as Geist and Boing Boing point out, means that the concept of public domain online would ultimately disappear (as there could always be another country with a longer copyright term). Says Geist:

As for a European infringement, if UE is correct, then the public domain becomes an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest single copyright term applying on a global basis. That can’t possibly be right. Canada has chosen a copyright term that complies with its international obligations and attempts to import longer terms – as is the case here – should not only be rejected but treated as copyright misuse.

LibriVox has had similar claims from copyright lawyers over the past couple of years, and we pushed back (with the help of Project Gutenberg), with our most compelling claim being:

Project Gutenberg has done exhaustive research over the years on this subject, and has not found any indication that the copyright laws of one country will have any force in any other country, even in cases of publishing materials on the Internet or the World Wide Web…

However, if you do come across any new case law or rulings that might effect some change, please let us know and we will discuss with our informal advisers at Project Gutenberg, so that they can update their research concerning such cases. As always, we will follow the legal standard that Project Gutenberg uses.

I’ve contacted to offer moral and any other support I can, on behalf of LibriVox.



  1. Eunah Choi says:

    It is so shocking and sad to hear that a wonderful public domain music site has been shut down. It is a sorrowful situation, but we will not allow a tragic ending for this matter! We will fight and pray for the folks at IMSLP. May IMSLP be resurrected, and public domain be free forever!!

  2. Eunah Choi says:

    By the way, whenever I think of those wonderful people behind the efforts and the enrichment of public domain, I can’t help quoting the last two lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet XVIII to praise them:
    “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

    You are truly doing admirable work!! I am so proud of being one of the Librivox members. I hope I will record a short work so that I can add my little contribution to LibriVox. Thank you! Be forever, LibriVox!!

  3. Stephen Davies says:

    The fact that this project was accessible via the Internet is irrelevant. It is the Austrians who would be breaking copyright by accessing the files. It is not the Canadians’ fault for offering it, when it is their national right to do so.
    Universal AG was arguing more on bluff than basis. It would appear that some large corporations would prefer to outspend than to act ethically.

  4. just curious … what would the austrian courts do ? give a notice asking the canadians to appear in their courts ? or go to canada and file a case there saying that some people in austria is accessing the site and that such an action is illegal and violative of the copyrights ? as stephen davies above indicated.. let the austrians tell the austrians that it is illegal to access the files .. i dont think the canadian site should have yielded to the bluff

  5. hugh says:

    i think there have been cases where canadian courts have been asked to consider EU laws for copyright. as far as i know, there has been no successful case like this.

  6. Thank you for raising this issue. Please know that there is a new European Union thematic network COMMUNIA for the Public Domain. My laboratory Minciu Sodas is a founding member. I welcome your participation! Thank you to Sasha Mrkailo for alerting me to your post.

  7. hugh says:

    hi andrius, how can we help?

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