There’s No Such Thing as Free Music…

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jan 17, 2012    •    632 Views

By Mira Korber, guest blogger.

You are a young musician on the brink of your professional career. Graduation is in May, orchestra auditions are around the corner, and where do you go to begin preparing? The IMSLP, of course.

The what? The “International Music Score Library Project” (IMSLP) is the largest, open source, wiki-style website to which anyone can upload public domain sheet music and recordings. It’s the easiest, fastest, and cheapest (free!) source of downloadable scores — and while originally little known, is now considered the ultimate online musician’s resource. With over 150,000 scores and 7,000 recordings, it’s easy to see why.

What’s the catch? IMSLP scores are in the public domain, therefore violate no copyright laws, but sometimes the site finds itself in a sticky intellectual property and publishing rights situation. With everything public — from uploading to managing the sheet music — the site is “crowd-sourced,” according to the founder, conservatory graduate and Harvard law student, Edward Guo.

But the site’s history reflects copyright struggles with music publishing companies, who say IMSLP damages their hard-copy music sales. This article (from 2007) describes the IMSLP battle with Universal Edition, which successfully demanded the site be taken down due to copyright infringements in Europe but not in Canada, Guo’s home country.

Eight months later, after volunteers perused all scores for copyright offense, the site was up and running again — until 2011, when the Music Publishers Association forced closure of IMSLP for one day. However, it is again accessible to all musicians seeking public domain scores; even professionals are using the site’s resources for their performances.

And in an age of struggling orchestras, free parts are certainly welcome.

The Economic Lesson

“There is no such thing as free lunch” (TINSTAAFL) refers to hidden costs associated with something that may appear “free,” just like the music on IMSLP. Anything, from downloadable sheet music to a relaxing park costs someone something. Therefore, when considering something that appears “free,” remember there is always an opportunity cost, or sacrifice, made to access it. Even though IMSLP provides resources for the social good, its founder may pay the price in legal copyright hassle, and music companies in sales they lose.

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