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The Implications of IMSLP

2 Zachary Preucil

Screen shot 2013-11-19 at 7.23.39 PMThe afternoon of Friday, November 15th, found many tech-savvy musicians in a state of despair. IMSLP.org, the acclaimed online music library, was down-and rumors were swirling that it was gone for good. These missives of misinformation were primarily fueled by the sharing of an open letter from IMSLP’s founder, detailing how he had been forced to shut down the site due to legal reasons.

“I apologize profusely to all IMSLP contributors that it has come down to this,” the beleaguered editor wrote.

But just when things were looking bleak for the mecca of digital sheet music, it became apparent that it was all a misunderstanding. The site was just down due to technical difficulties, and the disparaging open letter, while authentic, was actually written in 2007 when the site was indeed taken down for half a year or so. Relieved musicians hurriedly changed their Facebook statuses from “RIP IMSLP” to “EDIT EDIT never mind!!”, and by evening, an attempt to access the storied URL once again yielded the familiar cerulean home page, and a world of repertoire at our fingertips.

While I never quite believed that IMSLP was really gone when posts concerning its supposed demise were dominating my Facebook page on Friday afternoon, the incident inspired an intriguing question: what would our lives be like without IMSLP? It might seem as though the site has been around forever, but in reality, it’s only been seven and a half years since it launched on February 16th, 2006. As evidenced by the fear-inducing 2007 letter that made the rounds last week, the site’s editors have encountered a couple legal challenges, mostly resulting from differing copyright laws in the various countries that it serves. At present, however, these disputes have been resolved, and IMSLP represents a treasure trove for musicians worldwide. No longer do we have to wait a week to receive a new piece from Shar; we can simply head to the computer and print it out in seconds. Gone are the days when we were required to pore through the New Grove Dictionary to search for details of a lesser-known work; now, a mere trip through IMSLP’s “Genre” section will yield every piece known to man for a given combination of instruments. IMSLP can be a lifesaver, too. We’ve all surely had the dread experience of showing up to a concert venue and realizing that our music is still on the stand at home, but now, instead of forcing our roommates to break traffic laws and quickly drive the part to us through rain, sleet, and gloom of night, we can simply head over to the box office and print out a fresh new one (given, of course, that the piece in question is in public domain).

Yes, there’s no question that IMSLP is an invaluable resource, but I have to admit to experiencing the slightest twinge of guilt whenever I type those immortalized letters into my address bar. It just seems too easy. Of course, one can venture the argument that utilizing the abundant resources of IMSLP is no different than going to a music library and checking out a score-it’s just that IMSLP provides access to such a library for those who do not live within close proximity to a real, physical one. It’s true that the function of IMSLP is the same as that of a real library, but the consumer experience it provides is obviously quite different. As a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music, I live a block away from the Sibley Music Library, the largest such institution on the continent.  Sibley boasts an impressive collection, but I’ve still had the experience of going in and discovering that the piece I desired was in fact checked out. On IMSLP, of course, there’s no such thing as checking something out. Millions of people can view the same .pdf at once, and instantly realize it with the aid of a printer. Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with that since the music being downloaded is in the public domain, and no poor composers are suffering as a result, but doesn’t such a practice, in a sense, diminish some of the value of the product obtained? You might pay five dollars every morning for a cup of coffee-which is arguably unnecessary for your survival, assuming you are able to buy more food elsewhere-but you don’t pay a cent for the complete parts of the Brahms B-Flat Major String Sextet. Obviously, the Brahms is worth much more in an artistic sense, but in a monetary context, it is your morning latte that actually holds the greater value.

This ethical dilemma isn’t exclusive to IMSLP and sheet music, of course; similar issues arise when considering the state of the recording industry. Practically every work in the standard repertoire can now be heard for free through a simple YouTube search. Sure, we still need to pay for recently released recordings, but the days of buying a CD just to hear how a piece sounds are definitely in the past. There are those who will spend money to obtain a permanent, high quality recording-or similarly, a finely bound edition of a treasured score-but the majority of people who search for parts and recordings are simply trying to get their hands on them, and IMSLP, YouTube and other similar online resources satisfy that need completely. On a personal level, I am the first to admit that I fall into the latter category. My CD collection comprises of a mere twenty discs, and I only have a handful of recordings on my iTunes-the bulk of my listening needs are satisfied at no cost by a variety of online resources. This situation is ideal given my meager graduate student budget-why should I pay fifteen bucks for an album when I could hear the exact same thing for free on YouTube? To do otherwise would be simply illogical-and thus is the world in which we now live.

So, what do we make of these ethical qualms? Well, unless the world goes dark in some sort of apocalyptic scenario, modern technology is here to stay, and so is the widespread access to music and recordings. Despite its apparent near-death experience last Friday, IMSLP lives on, as do its many confederates in the intangible realm of the internet. I suppose we might as well accept that it has somewhat replaced music libraries, just as Netflix has replaced Blockbuster and Facebook has replaced multiple facets of social interaction. The progression of technology is inexorable, and in spite of the moral questions it poses, it certainly has more pros than cons. IMSLP is a fantastic resource, and its future is rightly ever bright. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but wondering what would have happened if IMSLP had really been shut down last week. There probably wouldn’t have been drastic repercussions; it would have simply been more difficult for some people to obtain the music that they needed. But I think it would have taught us an important lesson-a reminder to our technology-addicted generation that there is something special about trekking out to the library on a cold, November night in search of a coveted work of art. Our generation will be among the last to recall such an experience, but we mustn’t forget the determination and drive that compelled us to undertake such efforts, because it made the object of our desires that much more meaningful and valuable. Convenience is at the heart of the internet, but perseverance is at the heart of making music.

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2 comments feed top ↑

  1. Zachary Preucil Comment by Zachary Preucil
    November 21, 2019 at 11:04 PM

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! As I mentioned in my post, I certainly agree that the widespread access to works and recordings afforded by IMSLP, YouTube etc. is a positive development, and that it does eliminate certain issues as the ones you mentioned. My point in this post was not to call for criticism of these resources, but to examine how they have changed the ways in which we access music. The “ethical qualms” I addressed are more rhetorical than literal, because there is really no ideal solution-as you rightly state, “progress is progress.” I think the big question is what this implies for the future of purchasing artistic content. I’m only entering the profession and certainly don’t possess expertise in copyright laws to the extent of someone like Mr. Harrington; however, I do feel that when we are able to access a recording for free that we would have had to pay for a mere ten years ago, we should question that. Even if it’s not with the intent of demanding greater restrictions on content sharing, etc. we should strive to be ever cognizant of how technology is impacting art as it continues to progress. I think we can agree that it is a complex issue, and one than certainly warrants some thought, even if no action will be taken.

    Thanks again for your feedback!


  2. Michael Drapkin Comment by Michael Drapkin
    November 21, 2019 at 5:54 PM

    I’m not sure there is really any ethical issue, and progress is progress. For years our access to public domain works of the great masters was limited to libraries like our wonderful Sibley (I am an Eastman alum) or from vendors that were charging for works that were not under copyright.

    My colleague Michael Harrington, one of our nation’s great music intellectual property experts, reminds me of two interesting points:

    1) The intent and purpose of copyright is to encourage the creation and sharing of creative work, and
    2) Amusingly, in the US Federal copyright code, there is no definition of the term “copyright.”

    I also feel no guilt about access to music via YouTube. Although we live in a time where the internet has caused great disintermediation between the creators of music and those that want to hear it by eliminating many of the middlemen, it wasn’t so long ago that what recordings we had access to, primarily in record stores, was controlled by a small number of firms. These same firms also had onerous recording agreements that benefited them and rarely financially benefited the performers.

    What changed all of this, of course, was the invention and propagation of the internet, which destroyed these artificial barriers. Great! I don’t feel guilty, in fact I cheer it on!