The Public Domain

Earlier this week I was picking up some music books at Rideau Music  – our local printed music store – and had a nice chat with owner Lynden Gill. Lynden has been a constant in the Calgary and area music community for the last 25 years. He’s been a source of information and inspiration – truly serving us well.

Rideau is one of a handful of independent music stores in North America – and it has seen a decline in recent years. Online shopping has made its mark – although Rideau offers the same service – but a more pressing concern these days is the music that is available for free as a digital download. If the composer’s been dead for more than 50 years (in Canada; other countries have different copyright laws; IMSLP operates by Canadian law as this is where the main site is hosted), it’s in the public domain.

Music in the public domain consists of the notes and rhythm that the composer set down. Anyone could legally enter all the notes and rhythm of, say, Bach’s Two-part Inventions on some notation program on his home computer and sell it if he could find a buyer, or upload it for anyone to have for free. I’ve seen some such copies of the classics on sites like IMSLP – some are abysmal.

From the IMSLP website, this is what constitutes the difference between good, copyrighted editions, and freebies that someone has set down on a program:

  • Most Significant: Transcriptions, orchestrations, arrangements, creative realizations of continuo or figured bass parts.
  • Less Significant: Adding original (new) fingerings, articulations, slurs, dynamic and tempo markings, routine chordal realizations of figured basses.
  • Insignificant: Transposition, error correction, translation of common expressions and instrument names.
  • Insignificant: Adding fingerings, articulations, slurs, dynamic and tempo markings from other public domain sources.

What is not in the public domain are the scholarly editions – the good editions that have well-thought-out fingering and articulations that are true to the performance practices of the period, as well as a bounty of information in the Preface that is often overlooked. We have this information precisely because of all the research and work over the centuries. The publishers own this intellectual property – and rightly so. Someone has to fund it. I’m not sure any publisher of scholarly editions of classical music is making millions, and no one should be resented a living wage even if he is “doing what he loves.”

I’m a fan of IMSLP – it’s a source of a vast repertoire of classical music that is in the public domain. It’s a great place to go for students of history who are studying scores, or for quick reference of a composer’s body of work, or a sort of preview of what one might want to learn. It is not a good place for good editions of Bach, Beethoven, or many other composers. The good editions remain under copyright. I would hate see the loss of scholarly work because of free downloads of bad editions. If we as musicians don’t support the publishers and music stores, who will?

Don’t even get me started on photocopying. I’ve turned a corner and am not going back.

I should add that I am far from being an expert on any legal matter; if any of this is incorrect, do let me know.

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About LaDona's Music Studio

Musician, pianist, teacher, blogger.
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2 Responses to The Public Domain

  1. Pingback: More on Copyright Stuff | LaDona's Music Studio

  2. Pingback: Positive ID and a couple of face-palms | LaDona's Music Studio

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