Rachmaninoff at centre of sheet music copyright feud

While the rest of the music industry umms and aahs over the illegal downloading of Justin Bieber MP3s, an intriguing spat has occurred over the rather more archaic format of sheet music with long deceased Russian composer Sergie Rachmaninoff embroiled in a bitter copyright feud.

The problem began with the International Music Score Library Project, which offers free files of music scores for musicians to view, posting Rachmaninoff’s ‘The Bells’ composition. UK trade group the Music Publishers’ Association saw this as contravening the copyright on the music.

This prompted the group to inform the IMSLP’s web domain host, GoDaddy, asserting that the site makes available “unlicensed copyright protected sheet music notation which is an infringement of copyright”, and demanding that it is removed immediately or the web host would be liable for “secondary copyright infringement”.

Furthermore the MPA requested that GoDaddy “withdraw from all associations” with IMSLP, and “retract their domain name so that the website cannot be accessed”. See here for the original email.

So all of this seems, at first, like an overly harsh argument but possibly with some basis in legality. Assuming that the IMSLP was guilty of wilfully publishing copyrighted material, that is.

But the MPA didn’t do its homework before making the bold claims and grand demands from GoDaddy. The IMSLP hit back by highlighting that it was actually legally entitled to print the work of the composer as it was most certainly in the public domain.

“This work is definitely NOT under copyright in the USA,” the IMSLP said, stating that due to various legalities of its publishing it was in fact in the public domain in the US as soon as it had been published in 1920.

Furthermore the EU 70 year copyright embargo on music would not have relevance to a Russian musician, with the country not party to EU copyright legislation, who later became an American citizen according to the IMSLP.

What was more surprising about the claims which the IMSLP deftly batted away is the way that Godaddy responded to the MPA’s email.

Did it stick by the site which pays its dues for its domain with the web host? Did it investigate the matter with the supposedly offending site and hear its version of the story concerning the legality of its content?

Not quite. Godaddy took the rather less honourable approach of pulling the website with no prior notice or consultation with the site owners.

As one poster at the IMSLP points out, you would hardly expect YouTube to be pulled offline if one of its videos were found to be in contravention of copyright law, so why should this matter be any different? Although some parts of the content industry might rather like that.

It appears that the mere sight of threatened legal action forced GoDaddy’s team into a kneejerk decision to pull the website rather than face the, er, music.

While the red-faced MPA has now agreed to retract its claims, following the publication of its email online by the IMSLP, and the site has been reinstated, it is not quite clear whether it is the MPA or GoDaddy which comes off looking worse.

Or as the IMSLP says: “Too bad that a gang of dying companies running on a failed business model can’t find anything more productive to do with their time (like maybe promoting the works of living composers, instead of playing lawyer over ones dead since 1943).”