Jason Robert Brown, composer of Parade and lots of other excellent musical theater music, has a valuable post on his blog today about his attempts to persuade internet “traders” from illegally offering his sheet music for download for free. Brown joined one of the peer-to-peer communities that had a lot of his work listed and contacted about 400 users, politely asking them to stop offering his material. Most complied, some had no idea what he was talking about, and a few resisted. The issue of who benefits and who loses from the widespread distribution of his work is raised in a lengthy exchange he had with a teenage girl named Brenna…ur, Eleanor… which provides some insights into both perspectives of the copyright debate.

I know a lot of composers who are pleased to allow people to download their music free and distribute it to whomever they like because they believe doing so provides exposure to their work and grows their “brand” (to use an overused marketing term). Others believe their music is their intellectual property and they should be paid for any use. Where you stand seems to depend upon how commercially “successful” you are. If you’re relatively unknown and there is little demand for your music, giving it away is a great strategy. If there is a market demand for your work in various forms, it’s not.

Who has thoughts on this topic?

12 Responses to “Jason Robert Brown, Copyright, and Who Wins or Loses from Web Piracy”
  1. I read this blog post with interest a few days ago. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Mr. Brown, but I also couldn’t help to feel that he was fighting a losing battle. As David Toub points out, this is beginning to be the norm. The problem is that the law still, after all these years, has not caught up with digital media. Enough composers, however, are becoming increasingly savvy with the technology that this will all change permanently very soon (the current crop of conservatory composers, for instance, has never lived in a world without digital technology and distribution).

    It seems to me that the fate of publishing revenues is the same as that of recording revenues. Most musicians these days make their living from live performances (I know I do). Recordings and (at least in the case of popular music) printed music primarily serves as promotional material now. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

  2. Scott Burgess says:

    @Chris Hertzog,

    You’re right about this if and only if the person who is trading away the legally downloaded copy completely deletes it from their own computer. I’ve done this with music that I’ve downloaded from iTunes to give as a gift, but came to realize it’s a lot easier to just give an iTunes gift card. The girl in JRB’s post wasn’t doing this, as she indicated that she didn’t have access to a credit card to legally download the song she wanted. If you buy a CD and give it away, there’s still just one CD. That’s the difference between physical merchandise and digital downloads.

    @Molly,

    Didn’t someone once say that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged? Don’t start on the politics (off topic!), but this is just to say that it’s only natural to start getting concerned about this when you suddenly find you can’t pay your bills because people are copying your stuff instead of paying for it.

    I guest-lecture on this topic at my school, and in every class there are jaws on the floor. Some of these kids just never even considered that someone else was losing their livelihood from it.

  3. Mr Toub – Jason Robert Brown is one of the most successful musical composers around – well, actually he’s most renowned as a composer of individual songs which are frequently performed in high schools and at revues, which makes him even more susceptible to this kind of thing – and if you read the post you will find that if you simply multiply the number of trades made by royalties lost he loses at the very least literally thousands of dollars of income each year, and since he’s a professional composer with no day job this is a problem. I have nothing against file trading per se, so long as we’re talking about perusal or study scores (which are generally provided by publishers free of charge to begin with – see Schirmer Digital), but acquiring say a piano piece or vocal score for performance (again, nothing against composers treating the internet like a library situation) without paying a living composer is I think problematic.

  4. Criminal or not, that’s indeed an important factor in (the seeming sliding-scale ethics side of) the debate. It will be interesting to see what happens when digital natives are in a position to make the rules. I suspect their reality is fundamentally different from those who did not grow up with digital copies. But will they keep on this path (a la the teen in Brown’s post), or will they suddenly turn conservative once they reach the other end of the spectrum?

  5. Christian says:

    @Molly,

    Yes, I did see – and enjoyed – your post.

    True, this is a digression from Jerry’s original question, but it relates to the mindset of the teenager Mr. Brown mentioned in his blog post. She was incredulous that what she was doing would be considered stealing. Why? Because popular culture has reinforced that mindset.

    It isn’t couched as stealing if you’re on Glee or if you’re Jay-Z, so why should teenagers think that they ought to pay $4 for Mr. Brown’s sheet music?

  6. @Christian re: Glee

    Did you see Christina Mulligan’s piece on this issue? I was glad to read it:

    Copyright: The Elephant in the Middle of the Glee Club

    I put up a post about it, but, um, we got a little sidetracked…

  7. Christian says:

    Chris,

    With respect, there’s a lot of scanning of sheet music on P2P that doesn’t fall under fair use. If I borrow or buy a copy of a piece of sheet music, I’m not allowed to share copies of it with others. I’ve acquired it for my own use. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traded or not; under current law, that type of arrangement isn’t fair use.

    Like David, I currently give away scores of my own music liberally. I haven’t seen any of them floating around on P2P networks, but right now I’d be more than okay with my music being shared in this fashion. That said, if a publisher or record company were to take my scores on, and we were to invest in promoting them for sale, I’d probably feel very differently about my work being shared on P2P networks.

  8. Chris Hertzog says:

    Here’s the deal: authors and musicians only get a royalty for the initial sale of their work. If I buy sheet music or a CD at a thrift store, the creators get no cut of the income the vendor derives. If someone uses their neighborhood library to check out a CD or score, the creator does not get any extra money. Now it’s wrong to copy the CD or score to avoid purchasing it. But for everyone who checks out that score or CD, uses it for the loan period, and then returns it–that’s completely legal.

    I don’t know the full details of the Brown “traders,” but if in fact someone is trading a piece of sheet music which someone once legally downloaded for another piece of sheet music which was once upon a time legally downloaded–there is nothing illegal about that. And if someone trades or even pays for what is essentially used merchandise–the composer has not legally lost a cent. Peer-to-peer networking is not quite the same thing because it is possible to download tons of things for free without giving anything back. But if there was a strict one-item-uploaded-for-one-item-downloaded rule, it would appear to be protected under the current copyright laws which don’t apply to vendors of used items.

  9. david toub says:

    Oh, not this again…

    For starters, like the last time this topic appeared here, just a few months ago, the composer who was indignant about file sharing of his scores was someone about whom, in all honesty, I’d never heard. Same with the person mentioned above-never heard of him. I’m sure he’s a nice person, and perhaps a good composer and all that. But I doubt very much that he’s lost much income from his scores being downloaded, and probably gained in market awareness, etc. I can’t prove any of this, of course, but we live in a digital age. This is no longer a world where one goes to Patelson’s or Schirmer’s to peruse and purchase scores or merely borrow them from a library in Lincoln Center or its equivalent elsewhere. Patelson’s is long gone. Does Schirmer’s even exist as a store in NYC? The fact that they’re gone is more evidence that the center of gravity for music scores has shifted to the online world. There are many avenues to post one’s scores and derive revenue that this person could take advantage of. I’m not sure how his scores got pirated, since they would have had to have been posted somewhere as PDFs and distributed, and I can’t see how that would have happened without his own intervention.

    So to me, this is a nonissue. If folks want to derive revenue from their scores (or at least subscribe to the delusion that income exists through selling scores of anything that doesn’t involve a lot of musicians required for a single performance, like chorus music), there are online stores to do just that. For folks like me who don’t give a damn and are just happy anyone is actually willing and/or intoxicated enough to download and look at our scores, we give it away online through our own sites, the imslp.org site, etc. Like Paul said, we can have both.

  10. Seth Gordon says:

    So no one’s allowed to be a Professional Artist anymore?

    How sad.

  11. Paul H. Muller says:

    I think we will evolve into two species:

    Professional Musicians: those who compose and/or perform for compensation – and thus adhere to copyright rules.

    Musical Artists: those who are willing to distribute their work – typically in digital form – at no charge.

    The professionals will do what they have always done – look for paying commissions and traditional performance gigs. More power to them.

    The artists will have to content themselves with their own communities and the chance to advance the art in directions not dictated by the musical establishment. Exciting!

    I think we need both.

  12. Christian says:

    I wish that, just once, the producers of the TV show Glee would explain how they are able to afford arranging and mashing up all of the different pop tunes that they program. I think it would blow Gleeks’ minds to learn how much money changes hands when material is licensed appropriately. Taking that one step further, how many HS and college glee clubs pay licensing fees when they make their own mash-ups and pop arrangements?

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