Michael Geist considers the recent threats against and subsequent closure of the International Music Score Library Project website a hugely important case for the future of the public domain.
"In February 2006, a part-time Canadian music student established a modest, non-commercial website that used collaborative wiki tools, such as those used by Wikipedia, to create an online library of public domain musical scores. Within a matter of months, the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) featured over 1,000 musical scores for which the copyright had expired in Canada.
Nineteen months later - without any funding, sponsorship or promotion - the site had become the largest public domain music score library on the Internet, generating a million hits per day, featuring over 15,000 scores by over 1,000 composers, and adding 2,000 new scores each month.
Ten days ago, the IMSLP disappeared from the Internet. Universal Edition, an Austrian music publisher, retained a Toronto law firm to demand that the site block European users from accessing certain works and from adding new scores for which the copyright had not expired in Europe. The company noted that while the music scores entered the public domain in Canada fifty years after a composer’s death, Europe's copyright term is twenty years longer.
The legal demand led to many sleepless nights as the student struggled with the prospect of liability for activity that is perfectly lawful in Canada. The site had been very careful about copyright compliance, establishing a review system by experienced administrators who would only post new music scores that were clearly in the Canadian public domain.
Notwithstanding those efforts, on October 19th, the law firm's stated deadline, the student took the world's best public domain music scores site offline...
This case is enormously important from a public domain perspective. If Universal Edition is correct, then the public domain becomes an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest copyright term applying on a global basis.
Moreover, there are even broader implications for online businesses. According to Universal Edition, businesses must comply both with their local laws and with the requirements of any other jurisdiction where their site is accessible - in other words, the laws of virtually every country on earth. It is safe to say that e-commerce would grind to a halt under that standard since few organizations can realistically comply with hundreds of foreign laws.
Thousands of music aficionados are rooting for the IMSLP in this dispute. They ought to be joined by anyone with an interest in a robust public domain and a viable e-commerce marketplace. "