Sunday, January 13, 2008


Another frontier for Free Culture to tame

The new forum WikBack, where a number of Wikipedia/Wikimedia regulars are meeting, so far has proven to have a very favorable message-to-noise ratio. One of the jems here is UninvitedCompany's post on the proprietary stranglehold on sheet music, which I quote in total below. (Thread here)


One of the last frontiers of the open content movement is sheet music, that is, the written form of music that is part of the western musical tradition from roughly the 15th century to today.

Musicians and musicologists have long been the captive of specialized publishing houses who produce sheet music. Initially, that was because of the difficult and specialized skill required to prepare musical works for printing. In current times, proliferation of open content is hindered mainly by the relatively small audience (most people cannot read music) and the difficulty of transcribing music into a grammar which software music typesetting programs can read.

The most successful project still operating is Mutopia, which has a small (1000 or so items), fragmented library of pieces hand-typeset from public domain scores using the Lilypond software, which is open source.

Project Gutenberg, primarily a text-based project, includes a handful of scores in its collection. Progress there is limited by the lack of support for music notation in the Distributed Proofreaders project that serves as the source for nearly all new PG material.

Until recently, a project that aimed to collect and organize high-resolution scans of public-domain sheet music ( was shut down after receiving copyright complaints from a publisher. The site has been off-line for approximately two months, and while discussion is reportedly under way regarding rehosting the site, no visible progress has been made.

The copyright complaints appear to me and to many observers to be without merit, and involve the web site (which is based in Canada) providing material that is still in copyright in Austria and a few other countries where copyright terms are unusually lengthy.

The IMSLP story is an example of the lengths to which the music publishing industry is willing to go to undermine free alternatives. Over half the volume of sheet music sales in the U.S. are low-end educational materials aimed primarily at teachers and the beginners they serve. These materials are inexpensive, and most are recently written and still under copyright.

The remainder is purchased by churches, performing groups, individual musicians, and teachers who work at college or university levels. These works, by and large, were composed prior to 1910, and music publishers have used a combination of semi-legitimate copyright and scare tactics to prevent an open content market from developing. Since the works themselves are no longer subject to copyright, publishers produce new "editions" which incorporate fingerings, interpretive notes, or graphic design purportedly under copyright. At the same time, industry groups have carried out a "copying is stealing" campaign, and place draconian notices on publications stating that any copying for any reason is a crime (despite the fact that this is frequently not the case).

The legal attack on IMSLP is part of this coordinated effort.

Progress on projects like Mutopia is hindered by the lack of a common grammar for transcription of music scores. Music is traditionally written in a freeform, two-dimensional, position-dependent format. Efforts to come up with a standard machine-readable format for music, like MusicXML, have not received widespread support. The best available formats are specific to individual music typesetting programs, be they commercial or open source. Matters are further complicated by the fact that no format has proven enduring -- both the open source and commercial products routinely invalidate older input when new software versions are released.

Wikipedia, Wikisource, and Commons sheet music content is limited to a handful of sample scores, due in part to a lack of editing support for music in MediaWiki.

The questions then are these:
  • What is the way forward on sheet music for the open content community
  • Should the WikiMedia foundation start a new project or otherwise provide support for the fledgling open-content sheet music community?
  • What technical initiatives make sense given the fragmented and difficult tools landscape?

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