NPR had a succinct history of the MP3 a while back. It was an interesting read, and this is what fascinated me the most.
The story of how the [MP3] technology was hijacked and adapted for widespread consumers contains not only the roots of the war that the music industry would later wage over the tiny, compressed, user-friendly files, but also echoes of some of the very ideas that war was fought over: intellectual property, copyright, technology, theft, control and the free distribution of ideas and products that had taken years to realize.
What's notable and disturbing is that Brandenburg and his colleagues were ultimately unable to assert their intellectual property rights once someone copied and distributed their proprietary software used to encode MP3 files. This problem - "the free distribution of ideas and products that had taken years to realize" - made me think of composers and their music, and this post from John Mackey's blog in particular. While John's post deals with unlicensed performances, it still made me wonder what technologies have the potential to impact the classical music world the way the MP3 impacted the recording industry.
Instead of sharing audio files, what about the ease with which sheet music can be shared? The ability to digitize sheet music has already impacted the music publishing business. Boosey & Hawkes, G. Schirmer, and smaller publishers like Good Child Music allow you to purchase digital copies, PDFs usually, and print them out yourself. But what then? If I wanted to, I could email the PDF I just bought to a friend, and they could pass it on to two of their friends, etc. Or I could order a hard copy and scan it myself. Perhaps this is no different from borrowing a set of parts from a colleague, or passing along photocopies, but will cheap scanners and digital copies increase the ease with which sheet music can be shared, depriving composers and publishers their due?
I asked Jonathan Newman if he has had any problems with people sharing unauthorized reproductions of his work. "The short answer, is no," he said, "not for me at least. I've found that the PEOPLE I deal with are generally fairly respectful of the data (whether it be audio or images like pdfs), and I rarely, rarely have a problem." He said that, like Mackey, he has issues with people using his work without a license, but that "most musicians (that I've found) take some effort to respect and show consideration for the work." That's good to hear.
But what about music in the public domain and the publishers that print it? I attended a rehearsal last week and someone was following a score on their iPad; they downloaded it from IMSLP. And it's not just scores that are available on IMSLP, but complete sets of parts, piano reductions, and even recordings. Being able to print out free scores and parts for a Beethoven or Mahler symphony is certainly a compelling reason to pass on reprints from Dover and Kalmus, and also on more expensive (copyrighted) scholarly editions of public domain works from Barenreiter and others, especially if your budget's taking a pounding. The quality might not be as good, but you can still play from them. Like the MP3, they're good enough for many, and they're free.
As for copyrighted works, it all hinges on the individual, as Jonathan said. We all have the ability to steal, but most of us recognize and respect the work that composers put into their music, know that it is their property and livelihood, and choose not to. Let's keep it that way. As for publishers of works in the public domain, their business model took for granted that the means of production would remain out of reach for the vast majority of their customers. The same goes for record companies. Obviously that's no longer the case.