Liberate the Music!

Ludwig von Beethoven died 183 years ago. So why is his music still locked behind copyrights and not available for free to everyone? Because even if the music itself is in the public domain, the recordings of his music, or perhaps the sheet music (with special arrangements or notation) can be copyrighted by the orchestras that perform the music or the composers who notate it.

And so if you buy a CD of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, you need to pay your $15 or so to the record label, distributor and retailer, the orchestra and all the lawyers and marketers and other irregulars with a finger in the pie. And then, in the end, you can only listen to the music. You can't legally download it, share it with friends over the Internet, do a remix of it, play it in a restaurant as background music, or use it as a soundtrack to a film.

A nonprofit group, Musopen, has been around five years as an online library of copyright-free musical recordings and sheet music. Musopen states: "We aim to record or obtain recordings that have no copyrights so that our visitors may listen, re-use, or in any way enjoy music. Put simply, our mission is to set music free."

The website plans to put most of its music under a Creative Commons license known as CC0 (“CC Zero”), which CC0 is essentially a renunciation of all rights to a work by the copyright holder. As Creative Commons describes it, “Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful legal sense. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the “no rights reserved” option.

Musopen has already released complete recordings of all 32 of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, for free and without any copyrights. But now the group is trying something more ambitious: it is using Kickstarter, a "crowdsourcing" website to fund new projects, to gather enough money from the commoners to hire an internationally renowned orchestra to record and release the rights to symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky. "We have price quotes from several orchestras and are ready to hire one, pending the funds," the site announced.

According to the Kickstarter page for this project Musopen needed to raise $11,000 to proceed. Just yesterday, it exceeded that goal by raising $68,359 from 1,276 backers. The extra money will come in handy for liberating lots of additional music and perhaps scores of scores. As Musopen notes, "Every $1,000 buys a complete set of Mozart violin sonatas, or all of Chopin’s mazurkas, ballades, or nocturnes… a little money buys a LOT of music."

After the music is recorded, Musopen recordings and sheet music are hosted for free by ibiblio, where the music remains indefinitely. Musopen also shares the music with other organizations such as Wikipedia, which can then link to the music from its articles; the Internet Archive, the great online repository; and the One Laptop Per Child project, which can then make the music freely available to children in hundreds of villages around the world.

See how much "value added" can occur outside of the marketplace? Too bad it takes so much work to liberate public-domain music from centuries ago.

Aaron Dunn, the Founder of Musopen, said this after all that money was raised:

I had originally wanted to send all the donors a hand written letter, thanking you for your contribution, but that would now cost me $561 in stamps. So please accept this digital version instead. I’m humbled by your generosity, not only for the money you gave but for your help spreading word of the project and personal encouragement. For what has been a solitary endeavor for the last five years, this is a dramatic and moving development.

This project is about releasing our shared cultural heritage to the world without constraints. That is not to say we won’t try to make the best possible recordings, or that we won’t hire the best orchestra, because we will. Since I could not donate through KickStarter, I will be paying to fly myself wherever it happens, to personally ensure we get the best possible recordings. So I’m asking that we accept that there will always be a “better” interpretation or nicer studio to record in, but there may never be anything else in the public domain, of a good quality, created by all of us as a community.

Far from a tragedy of the commons, Musopen is a cornucopia. If you go to Musopen's website, you can find and print out sheet music from dozens of composers. The website is also trying to launch a project to use volunteers to collaboratively write a public domain music theory textbook. If you are knowledgeable about tonal harmony, twentieth century techniques or recent types of musical analysis, get in touch with Musopen! And if you want to join the commons of public-spirited music appreciators who want to liberate the world's best music so it can be shared and copied for free, in perpetuity, you can donate here.

Musopen’s project resembles Joi Ito’s “Freesouls: Captured and Released” photography project, a collection of photographs of hundreds of free culture advocates. A few years ago, Ito, the CEO of Creative Commons, had found that there weren’t many good photographs of friends and colleagues that he could use, or which conferences or websites could copy, because most of the images were copyrighted by photographers. So Ito set out to take quality photos of the luminaries and lieutenants and thinkers and activists of the free culture world. He then made the images available to use for free, under a Creative Commons Attribution license and with “publicity rights” cleared (everyone photographed signed a release allowing their images to be used). The project was billed as “a celebration of all the people who are willing to share.”

And now, music! Aaron Dunn, thanks for your resourceful leadership in liberating our cultural heritage!