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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Do you download your sheet music for free, or buy it?

April 22, 2011 at 7:12 PM

This week the International Music Score Library Project, or IMSLP, was closed temporarily, due to a complaint issued by the Music Publisher's Association of the United Kingdom. The MPA took issue with the IMSLP's free publication of "The Bells, Op. 35," by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a work that is apparently no longer protected by copyright in the United States, but which the MPA claimed to fall under a British copyright law.

A full explanation of the dispute appears in a blog posted by Johann Paetsch on (this is the same as a post by "Carolus" on the IMSLP).

What is this all about?

In part, it's about copyright laws, which, let's just get this straight, are not the enemy. Copyright laws protects intellectual property -- that is, the creative output of composers, authors, filmmakers, photographers, speakers, programmers, and more. That protection lasts for a certain period after the death of the author, as well.

It is important to realize that everyone does NOT simply have the right to anyone else's creative output, for free. Composers, authors and other creative professionals deserve our support, including our financial support.

However, copyright protection has expired, a work falls into something we call the "public domain," after which it is legally permissible to copy the work, use the work, etc., without payment to the creator or his/her/its descendants.

Many of our favorite classical works fall into the category of "public domain," and it's wonderful that a website such as the IMSLP exists to give us easy access to these works.

But that doesn't mean there won't be any tension, when it comes to works where the copyright status might be in dispute, or where it might be free from copyright in one country but not in another.

These leads me to the vote of the week. Do you download most of your sheet music for free, or do you buy it? Also, please feel free to share your thoughts on the Internet and copyright.

From Eloise Garland
Posted on April 22, 2011 at 7:26 PM

 Well, unfortunately, some of us can't afford to buy every piece of music we use or want. However, I buy most of my sheet music and only download some. The bits I do download are usually something that is short like a folk song or an adaptation on a part for a pop song, for instance. I always think, there is nothing like holding a good hard copy of music you've bought in your hands! 

From Albert Wrigglesworth
Posted on April 22, 2011 at 9:53 PM

What I find interesting on this topic of copyright, is the copyrighting of a "public domain" piece of music.  Does this person who has made an "arrangement" of a "public domain" piece have a right to copyright it?  I would say yes in as far as it is the arrangement that is being copyrighted, and as such that the arrangement is not a copy or "partial copy" of another's arrangement.  With this in mind I would have to say then that the arrangement would not be able to be copyright.  Confused? It frosts me that someone can take a "public domain" piece and pass it off as their own "intellectual" work when all the work has been done.  All they are doing is interpreting it. Any musician worth their salt can ad-lib on the spot while performing. 

So let's compose our own music if we want to earn some money this way, and leave the old pieces alone and let the player interpret the piece.

I do believe strongly in Copyright Laws, and maybe some countries have the right idea in length and so on.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 1:56 AM

I purchase most of my sheet music bit will look at it first online (or at a brick & mortar sheet music shop).  Most of my downloads are full scores for study or sending the link to piano part to the pianist at church when we are considering working on a piece.  He will work off of either a copy from IMSLP or a copy of what I have.

From Robert Spear
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 4:07 AM

Copyright laws might not be the enemy, but to most of us they're no friend, either. Consider a case of a young prodigy who composes a piece at the age of 15 (not unheard-of in musical history) and obtains a copyright. Let us say that this young composer lives to the age of 90 (not unheard of statistically for someone born in 1996), during which time his work is protected by copyright. Under the most recent law, after the composer's death his work is protected by copyright for another 90 years, making the total term of copyright 165 years. The original terms of copyright were like those of patents-- about 14 years. We are inexorably creeping toward the two-century mark, during which time we, the people who grant the protection of copyright, are unable to benefit from it.

The net effect of this policy has been to create a huge market of intellectual property that is controlled by a small number of powerful business interests who aggregate this resource for their own profit. They lobby powerfully with teams of well-paid and highly skilled professionals whose goal is to increase their grip on this market, and our legislators seem ever-willing to cave in to them at their first appearance.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 12:43 PM

I download and print out music from IMSLP.  It is a fantastic resource for out of print public domain music.  There is much music on IMSLP I would buy if I could buy.

I buy music held under copyright.  Shostakovich, Bartok, Part, Walton, Stravinsky, Heifetz, etc. 

The public domain sheet music I buy are the editions worth buying.  Barenreiter is a great favorite.  My Barenreiter scores are in the public domain.  The music is worth owning because of the superior scholarship behind the editorial decisions, good layouts, and the beautiful bindings and paper used that will last many decades.

That said, IMSLP is a gift.  I have so much gratitude and respect for the wonderful people that are dedicated to the creation, upkeep, and development of the site.  Bravo.


Publishers, bullying IMSLP is not going to win you new business.  And your loyal customers will not be amused...


From Richard Watson
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 1:47 PM

 Bartok and Berg died in abject poverty. What right does Philharmonia have to the extortionate prices they charge for these composers' scores? Exploitation is the word that comes to mind. Excuse the Rant.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 8:34 PM

I prefer to buy.  I'd much rather have a nice bound part, printed on heavier paper with decent margins and reasonable-sized type than a bunch of floppy. flyaway single sheets.  For chamber music it's useful to have the full set of parts anyway.

The times I've been thankful for IMSLP are when I need a copy of perhaps one movement of a quartet, viola part only.  It's also handy if I want to look at an orchestral part before rehearsals start or, as Mendy said, to look at a piece before deciding whether to buy it.

We need to support music publishers, or we'll all be stuck with no option but taping together a sheaf of crappy copies on loose sheets for music in the public domain.  At the same time, IMSLP is a wonderful resource.  I hope to see them prosper.

From Tara S.
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 9:06 PM

I've actually downloaded a whole lot of music from IMSLP, music that I'm interested in studying or just want to see. However, I suspect once it comes time to actually study the pieces, I'll buy the sheet music. For me IMSLP is more a reference tool than an actual use-able copy. But, being a writer, I think I'm sensitive to the whole copyright issue. Or else I just like what another post-er said--like a nice printed and bound copy.

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 10:37 PM

I think Anne is spot on, and Lisa has a good point.  There are times when you need the printed music, and other times when the 'net will suffice. 

I read the post about the situation, and it does indeed seem wrong to me to shut down access for people whose benefit fom these scores is entirely legal (US) just because somewhere else in the world (UK) it is not.  Our friends on the other side of the Atlantic need but to use some judgment about it -- IMSLP doesn't make guarantees.  It is not that different from checking out materials in a library where they provide a copier, but expect you to know whether you can copy your item or not.

Albert, I take serious issue with your characterization of music arranging.  Have you ever tried to make a piano reduction out of a full orchestra score with the object of having it be playable without lossing fullness of texture?  Have you ever tried, for example, to take a piece for clarinet and arrange it so that a saxophonist can read and play it?  The work is certainly not all done and they do not just 'interpret' it.  And the fact is, most musicians cannot or do not want to have to do this themselves, especially on the spot.  (In fact most string players will really not have anything to do with anything that involves transposing on the spot.)  It's not a coincidence that if you *can* do that, you might make a good arranger and thus share your ability with the world.  It doesn't necessarily have to mean an exorbitant price tag either; many arrangements go for two or three bucks online now.  Are you really going to begrudge that?

From Andrew Paa
Posted on April 23, 2011 at 11:55 PM

I almost always buy it or, if a chamber work, use the part my colleague bought.  I do use IMSLP to as a resource when research rep. and once I find something I like, I'm likely to purchase it.

From Michael Pijoan
Posted on April 24, 2011 at 7:05 AM

None of my teachers allowed xeroxed music.

From Alice Kowalski
Posted on April 24, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Living abroad, downloading sheet music is a necessity. You simply cannot find most stuff locally, and importing the physical sheets is ridiculously expensive and (worse) takes weeks, when it is not lost in transit.

When available and in good quality on IMSLP, I go for the free version, mostly for how easy it is to find and get, not because of the price. I do purchase online too, depending on what is needed/available (often you can get better versions). I deeply resent editors that do not provide pdf versions (only hard copies), since they make it virtually impossible to study their scores. I respect copyrights, but not editors that try to keep electronic versions away from the public for fear of illegal distribution. Free or not, make the sheets available to us living far away!!

From marjory lange
Posted on April 24, 2011 at 1:49 PM

 A lot of what I want to try isn't available to buy, or is prohibitively expensive for a look-see.  I use download to see if I want to learn something, then buy an edition, if there is one.  Frankly, though, a lot of the recent publications by companies like International are really shoddy.  I purchased transcriptions of Handel violin sonatas, for instance, and found typos, transposition errors, etc.  Finally ended up keyboarding my own viola part on Muse, and making many corrections on the piano part.  

I don't understand why music publishers aren't more willing to do what book publishers have started to do--make their product available in both formats, print and electronic, both for sale.

From Pamela Moore
Posted on April 24, 2011 at 7:31 PM

I have downloaded at times, but buy when I'm working seriously on a piece.  Sometimes I have to start off with a downloaded copy, and then transition to the copy I buy, simply because it takes a while to get the music delivered.

Some editions are simply not available to buy anymore ... my violin teacher lent out her piano part for a violin work, and it's out of print.  I downloaded and printed the out-of-print copy for her, and she was very grateful.  Meanwhile, I purchased my own from another editor, but it was definitely different!

From Malcolm Turner
Posted on April 25, 2011 at 4:54 PM

I like to think I take a balanced view - stuff I'm working on seriously, I'll probably buy. And there's a lot of downloadable music I pay for - is a wonderful resource and I've been a member for years. Also, I have several CDs from Hal Leonard - just looking at the contents of the Ultimate Violin Concertos collection. IMSLP is also very useful - especially for orchestral work. As an example, for our next concert, our orchestra is doing Peer Gynt No. 1 and the Dvorak String Serenade. IMSLP has meant I've been able to look at these before the first rehearsal, when we get the "official" hired parts.

I'm not at all convinced that having these free or cheap resources available really has an impact of printed copies - in the same way that I can listen to entire Naxos recordings on their site. It just means that if I like what I hear, I'm MORE likely to buy than just "taking a chance".



From Elizabeth Kilpatrick
Posted on April 27, 2011 at 4:29 PM

I actually get most of my sheet music from my teacher. Most stuff that I get on my own though, is downloaded, but that isn't very much! Then of course, I have to buy some of it.

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