Universal Edition AG Responds to Criticism

Late last month, Universal Edition AG sent a cease and desist letter to the International Music Score Library Project, a website that specialized in musical scores that have fallen into the Canadian public domain.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

After the website was pulled due to the owner not financially able to fend off a potential lawsuit, it sparked a surprisingly large debate across the internet. Now, Slyck has learned that Universal Edition AG posted a response that may have raised as many questions as it answered.

Shortly after the take down, Michael Geist posted about it on his blog. From that point, the controversy simply spread, not to mention a multitude of criticisms against Universal AG. Cory Doctorow also picked up on the issue on BoingBoing. Michael Geist made an additional commentary on the major Canadian news outlet, the Toronto Star.

Howard Knopf, a Canadian lawyer who defended the 2004 file-sharing discovery case in Canada, posted an interesting analysis on the matter. He basically suggests that the request by Universal Edition AG to block users by country is unreasonable, let alone for a college student running the website in his free time. This was a good point given the advent of TOR and other proxies that exist today. Slyck ran a story that specifically discusses various methods to make oneself anonymous online three months ago.

Among other interesting arguments on the issue, Knopf comments on how this case may have a lot to do with cultural sovereignty. Perhaps more importantly, he addresses how some of the targeted works fulfills the life +70 year rule that exists in European laws – let alone the life +50 years as required in Canada. In effect, Universal Edition AG has claimed copyright over a work in the public domain. He also agreed with Michael Geist that the CCH vs. LSUC case suggests that the student has every right to presume that the materials would be used in a legal matter. “What the student was doing was arguably entirely 100% legal.” Knopf writes, “Canada has a life + 50 year term and many of us will fight very hard to keep it that way. This episode is a very good illustration of why it should remain that way.”

With new forms of debate opening up as a result of this, it seems Universal Edition AG wasn’t happy with the way things were going and posted a response to the issues. “We have followed the discussion here very closely following the regrettable decision taken by the IMSLP to close down its site. It’s very easy to present a case of “big corporation stamps on small good guys”, but that is unfortunately not the whole story.” Universal Edition AG commented, “Let’s make a few things clear, as a considerable amount of this discussion is based on misunderstandings and the fact that the IMSLP has deliberately decided to withhold part of the story from you – I wonder why…”

The Austrian publisher continued by saying that they did not take down the website. It’s no big surprise that this comment was given because who wants to be the crazy company that sued the public domain for copyright infringement? The publisher further comments that there was no reason to take the whole website down and that “I am most perplexed as to why this decision was taken.”

Other comments by the publisher were: “UE most certainly made repeated polite and direct attempts to discuss in an amiable manner the copyright infringements taking place on the site.”, “The arguments presented to us by IMSLP basically amount to a rejection of existing copyright laws in a number of countries.”, and “UE has no problem whatsoever with Canadian users in Canada downloading music which is public domain in Canada.”

Interestingly enough, the publisher does request that the servers offering the content be restarted, but continues to demand that they should “install a simple IP-geolocation software which will block European users from downloading copyright material. If you do not know how to do this, you should not be running an internationally accessible website containing material which by your own admission may be copyright protected.” Unfortunately, there was no public suggestions being made on how this could be accomplished.

In any event, Universal Edition AG may actually get one thing that they wanted – a restart of the service. In an email published online, Project Gutenberg offered to take the entire database and repost most of the website, including some of the content that was specifically named in the original cease and desist letter (DOC). One thing is for sure, Gutenberg is no stranger to copyright complaints and may be able to respond to legal threats such as the ones received by the musical score sheet website (PDF).

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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