Settling the score

Daniel J. Wakin over at the New York Times has a write-up about Edward W. Guo and the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP):

The site, the International Music Score Library Project, has trod in the footsteps of Google Books and Project Gutenberg and grown to be one of the largest sources of scores anywhere. It claims to have 85,000 scores, or parts for nearly 35,000 works, with several thousand being added every month. That is a worrisome pace for traditional music publishers, whose bread and butter comes from renting and selling scores in expensive editions backed by the latest scholarship. More than a business threat, the site has raised messy copyright issues and drawn the ire of established publishers.

Has it ever.  Apparently, all this free music sharing of hundreds-of-years-old music is not putting money in the right people’s pockets:

While a boon to garret-living, financially struggling young musicians, the library has caught the attention of music publishers.

Take that, struggling musicians!  Music publishers are feeling the heat!  Though, really, it’s only going to hurt all of you in the end:

“I don’t know if I would call it a threat, but I do believe it hurts sales,” said Ed Matthew, a senior promotion manager at G. Schirmer in New York. “It is that profit that helps us to continue to bring out more composers’ work.”

Wait…what?  It is the profit from selling/renting sheet music composed by long-dead composers like Beethoven at above-market prices that allows the G. Schirmer company “to bring out more composers’ work”?  Insofar as this even makes sense, they can only mean one of two things:

1.  Traditional music publishers can only continue to publish public domain scores if they can continue to sell it at monopoly prices (e.g., $30-50 for “[a] set of parts for a mainstream string quartet”, according to the NYTimes article).

Analysis:  Good riddance.  IMSLP will publish it for free.  Deadweight loss triange:  gone.

2.  Traditional music publishers can only afford to take a bath on contemporary composers if it can subsidize them with profits from public domain scores of dead composers.

Analysis:  Whatever this is, it’s not a business argument.  There are plenty of reasons to support new composers (and musicians generally) that have nothing to do with business, of course.  One may think that the arts are intrinsically valuable, or may want to give back/pay it forward, or may simply want the prestige of having one’s name connected rising talent as a “patron”.  All fair enough.  But there’s no business reason for a traditional music publisher to subsidize new talent with monopoly money.  Why should it do that?  It would make much more money if it simply sold the old public domain stuff and told new composers to take a hike.  (Unless, of course, it does make money off the new composers….)

You can’t have it both ways, G. Schirmer.  Either you do make money off new composers (in which case the issue is completely unrelated to your publication of public domain scores) or you don’t.  If you don’t, you have been running a charity, not a business.

I should point out that if G. Schirmer (or any other traditional music publisher) has been effectively running a charity for new composers up until now, I thank them.  Seriously.  This was very kind of them and the sort of thing that should be encouraged.

I hasten to add, however, that just because a music publisher may have used some of its profits to support the arts doesn’t mean that they should be able to assert legal rights they don’t have to public domain musical scores just because the Internet is threatening their traditional business model.  The arts can be supported much more directly and efficiently.  There’s no need to expand copyright law to allow a revenue stream to continue flowing into the publisher’s pockets that a trickle may eventually find its way into the tip jar of the up-and-coming composer.

Update 2/27/2011: TechDirt selected my comment summarizing this post as an “Editor’s Choice” in their comments-of-the-week wrap-up!