In 1994 Congress, following the latest round of GATT talks, voted to remove thousands of works, including musical scores, from the public domain. The rationale was that U.S. copyright laws would now be comparable to those in Europe - at that time many musical scores that were in the public domain in the U.S. were still under copyright in their home country - and this new parity would help protect the rights of U.S. composers, authors, and publishers abroad. If you've ever stumbled across an old set of parts for a Shostakovich or Prokofiev symphony in your school's library and wondered why that piece is rental-only today, this is the reason why.
A case challenging Congress' right to remove works from the public domain is now on its way to the Supreme Court. The plaintiff, conductor Lawrence Golan. The Chronicle of Higher Ed tells the story of Golan's journey from a conductor stymied, as many of us are, by the high costs of copyrighted works, to a reluctant advocate for the protection of the public domain.