Saturday, 10 July 2010

Michael Hawley: Sheet music piracy is okay (

DAVID POGUE: "No Easy Answers in the Copyright Debate" ( 8 July 2010)

Michael Hawley, formerly of the M.I.T. Media Lab, now a digital-media researcher, award-winning pianist and polymath, ... wrote to explain why he thinks sheet-music pirating is O.K., or even necessary:
I play the piano. Over the years, I have collected 15,000 piano scores in PDF form, covering about 400 years of classical keyboard works.

It's like lint in the drier of the Internet. Much of it is not available anywhere for purchase, or even findable in libraries for circulation. Max Reger's arrangement for two pianos of Wagner's overture, for instance? Well, the Max Reger Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany has a copy...

The last classical sheet music store in New York, Patelson's, went out of business recently. The recession finished them off. It was THE place to go to buy piano music. When I was in high school, I used to go there for hard-to-find scores by Granados or Medtner, and then hit the Carnegie Deli for some pastrami. Amazing, isn't it? New York City doesn't have an independent store that sells classical music scores.

Fortunately, over the last ten or fifteen years, amateur pianists have been scanning the contents of their grandmother's piano benches, and... voilĂ . A million monkeys typing don't get you Shakespeare, but a million monkeys scanning -- that makes a dent. I began collecting this stuff as a hobby. One day, I looked at my pile of music score bits. In those days, 15 gigabytes was most of my hard drive. But it was all there. All of Bach. All of Scriabin. All of Rachmaninoff.

At the Van Cliburn piano competition, a couple years ago, I gave tiny thumb drives to some of the winners and said, "Enjoy." Each thumb drive was smaller than my pinky but contained was the whole 15 GB trove. It blew their minds. Basically, every significant piano piece is in the pile.

What happened is, the classical piano sheet music publishing world plotzed a long time ago. But thanks to the monkeys, a lot of DNA has been preserved and is more available now than ever before. The monkeys aren't as well organized as the Wikipedia minions, but someday they will be.

When the publishers, composers, music stores have long since gone out of business, when the libraries don't have the stuff, the internet quickly becomes the Sargasso sea for catching this stuff. Not saying that your songwriter friend's points aren't completely valid -- of course they are. As slippery as digital rights are, the fact is that digital publishing probably gives people more ways to make more money and reach far wider audiences than the paper-based music publishing racket ever did.

But copyright, like the people who originate the material and the industries that promulgate it, has a lifespan. I think the classical piano sheet music world gives a glimpse of the end state -- out of the ashes of the music business, comes the rebirth of the musician business (as John Perry Barlow once said). It also, more importantly, shows what happens when a society does a poor, random job of preserving their cultural heritage to nurture future generations.

Generally, I side with the teenagers.

1 comment:

  1. Musicians everywhere, from flutists to opera singers to guitar players, use sheet music. For several pieces from the same author, one can usually find a book with a selection of songs. However, most music collections include a variety of loose leaf pieces that are easily lost.

    Monir Sider