Google and IMSLP: Perspectives on the Music Industry

While I usually prefer to not dwell on the profitability of artistic production, I also find its economic peculiarities fascinating.

Google “Disgusted” With Record Labels

I was surprised to learn this tidbit about the scope of the market from a story about Google’s imminent venture into the music industry:

The latest rumor to emerge from the Google campus is that the company’s much anticipated music service is just about at the end of their rope with the major label licensing process. A source close to the negotiations characterizes the search giant as “disgusted” with the labels, so much so that they are seriously considering following Amazon’s lead and launching their music could service without label licenses.…

Google may be starting to think that if the industry weren’t going to sue Amazon, then why would they take on Google? After all, who needs whom the most in this scenario? Could you even wrap your brain around the legal costs? As a source pointed out to me, “Larry, Serge and Eric could buy the entire music industry with their personal money.”

An analysis of Google’s position points to the following:

The fact that this is literally true tells us something that is often overlooked: the music industry is economically quite small and unimportant compared to the computer industry. And yet somehow—through honed lobbying and old boy networks—it wields a disproportionate power that enables it to block innovative ideas that the online world wants to try.

On a rational basis, the music industry’s concerns would be dwarfed by those of the computer world, which is not just far larger, but vastly more important in strategic terms. But instead, the former gets to make all kinds of hyperbolic claims about the alleged “damage” inflicted by piracy on its income, even though these simply don’t stand up to analysis.

IMSLP & the Music Publishers Association

Meanwhile, I was even more shocked by the sudden takedown of the website for the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). IMSLP came under attack by the Music Publisher’s Association of the UK (MPA):

Today, the registrar of our domain, a division of Go-Daddy, froze our domain name ( due to a complaint issued by the Music Publisher’s Association of the UK, who made two assertions in their complaint:

  1. Rachmaninoff’s work The Bells, Op.35 is under copyright in both the United States and the EU.
  2. IMSLP is somehow responsible for enforcing EU copyright terms upon the entire world (the same claim UE attempted back in October 2007).

Go-Daddy (a registrar based in Scottsdale, Arizona), apparently reacting to the DMCA complaint due to its assertion of US copyright violation, took the drastic and harmful step of freezing our domain name without first notifying us of the British MPA’s nonsensical assertions.

IMSLPs position on the takedown can perhaps be best described in these creative terms:

Too bad that a gang of dying companies running on a failed business model can’t find anything more productive to do with their time (like maybe promoting the works of living composers, instead of playing lawyer over ones dead since 1943).

[Fortunately, the site seems to be back up and running again.]

The Music-Industry Delusion

On the one hand, there is MPA fighting hard against IMSLP to protect the ideals of copyright protection; on the other, the realization that the entire music industry is hardly worth Google’s effort to even put up a fight.

I find myself getting caught up in the survivalist thinking of earnings and artistic protection from time to time. While some contemporary composers have made all of their scores available for free online, I—like many others—still provide only excerpts or partial scores to peruse before purchase. And yet, I—again, like many others—am hardly making anything directly from my compositions or performances. Still, I have yet to meet the composer who would give up composing if they could not make money at it.

The World Intellectual Property Organization makes it clear that the purpose of copyright is “to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public.” We must not lose sight of the delicate nature of a dynamic creative culture in our eagerness to return value, especially when the value does not or can not return to the creators.

Can you imagine if IMSLP’s hypothetical was reality? Instead of an industry that puts all of its energy into limiting access to music and art, could we have one that put all of its energy into promoting the works of living artists? An awful lot of work is put into the current model without much return; it couldn’t hurt to try a new paradigm. It will always be difficult to find the perfect balance, but I would think that the stories above clearly suggest that the current imbalance is unsustainable.

Leave a Comment