Almost two weeks ago the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), a volunteer-run wiki administered and housed in Edmonton, received a takedown notice from Aird & Berlis LLP acting for Universal Edition AG, the publisher of works by Bartok, Mahler, Schoenberg among others. The letter referred to the fact that some of the 15000 scores available on IMSLP were still under European copyright, though they were now in the public domain here in Canada. In Europe copyright persists for 70 years after the death of the composer; in Canada the post-mortem period is 50 years.
Care had been taken to ensure that none of the works on IMSLP violated Canadian copyright law.
The originator and manager of the site was faced with a poor set of alternatives. Either he could remove the works complained about by Universal Edition, thus depriving Canadians (and, presumably, others around the world) of works they were lawfully able to see; or he could do as the letter suggested and install fliters on the site that would prevent European visitors (computers, actually) from having any access to the site and, thus, to the vast bulk of works that they were entitled to see. A university student lacking any resources to meet the challenge posed by this solicitor’s letter, and not willing to cave in here only to find he had to cave in again later on because of some other jurisdiction’s harsher laws, he packed in the site.
Wikipedia has a brief description of IMSLP and the dispute. You can read the cease-and-desist letter here. IMSLP’s founder, whom everyone calls Feldmahler though the letter was directed to a Xiao-Guang Guo, established a forum where news can now be shared and opinions voiced about the debacle. Unversal Editions wrote to the forum defending its actions, and many supporters of IMSLP responded to their points, all of which you can access here.
The U.S. Project Gutenberg organization has offered to step in and save the site; but having American ownership and location of the site would mean a general loss of access to a number of works because of the protracted post-mortem copyright period in force there. So IMSLP has declined their kind offer.
IMSLP was by all accounts a stellar site, providing a marvelously rich resource. It made no money. It charged no money. It was intelligently scrupulous about complying with Canadian law. One has to wonder what the ghosts of Mahler et al. are feeling now. And one has to wonder where, if anywhere, the shades of foreign law lose force.
Lowest common denominator, here we come.