Last week, composer Jason Robert Brown had an extended online conversation with a teenager who was illegally downloading (‘trading’, in the parlance of this particular online subculture) some of his published sheet music. On sites like Piano Files, much like the BitTorrent communities, users request and share songs they’re looking for.
The, uh, inter-generational dialogue is worth reading, as is this overview of sheet music piracy written by Georgia Stitt. Though, for those familiar with the current debate on intellectual property, copyright and digital rights, there’s not much new.
It seems like the songwriter and composition world is one that’s been woefully susceptible to piracy for years. After all, sheet music is comprised of short, small documents–they present none of the issues that music and movie files once did. Heck, it’s even easy to photocopy.
In fact, some of the earliest files I ever downloaded from the nascent Internet were guitar tablature, chord sequences and playing instructions for pop and rock songs. They typically looked like this.
I didn’t care, but I don’t think they were technically illegal (I suppose those documents that republished the lyrics in full violated copyright). These had been independently created by fans, not copied from some legitimate source. Many (even most) songs weren’t available in guitar tablature, so these were crowd-sourced solution to the problem.
I still subscribe to this theory of art and copyright: a creator’s greatest fear isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. As Brown points out, you can at least buy his sheet music for a reasonable price at SheetMusicDirect.us. Is that the iTunes Store of sheet music? I have no idea. Though, probably not, because a search for ‘Georgia Stitt’ generated no results. An exhaustive, easy-to-use online store is going to be a composer’s best shot at getting as much revenue as possible from sheet music sales.
Like so many creators, composers will need to rethink their revenue model in a world where it’s easy to make and share copies of their creations.
Coincidentally, today I received a media release for a local production of Brown’s “The Last Five Years” at the Pacific Theatre.