Composers, Sheet Music and Piracy

Last week, composer Jason Robert Brown had an extended online conversation with a teenager who was illegally downloading (‘trading’, in the parlance of this particular online subculture) some of his published sheet music. On sites like Piano Files, much like the BitTorrent communities, users request and share songs they’re looking for.

The, uh, inter-generational dialogue is worth reading, as is this overview of sheet music piracy written by Georgia Stitt. Though, for those familiar with the current debate on intellectual property, copyright and digital rights, there’s not much new.

It seems like the songwriter and composition world is one that’s been woefully susceptible to piracy for years. After all, sheet music is comprised of short, small documents–they present none of the issues that music and movie files once did. Heck, it’s even easy to photocopy.

In fact, some of the earliest files I ever downloaded from the nascent Internet were guitar tablature, chord sequences and playing instructions for pop and rock songs. They typically looked like this.

I didn’t care, but I don’t think they were technically illegal (I suppose those documents that republished the lyrics in full violated copyright). These had been independently created by fans, not copied from some legitimate source. Many (even most) songs weren’t available in guitar tablature, so these were crowd-sourced solution to the problem.

I still subscribe to this theory of art and copyright: a creator’s greatest fear isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. As Brown points out, you can at least buy his sheet music for a reasonable price at Is that the iTunes Store of sheet music? I have no idea. Though, probably not, because a search for ‘Georgia Stitt’ generated no results. An exhaustive, easy-to-use online store is going to be a composer’s best shot at getting as much revenue as possible from sheet music sales.

Like so many creators, composers will need to rethink their revenue model in a world where it’s easy to make and share copies of their creations.

Coincidentally, today I received a media release for a local production of Brown’s “The Last Five Years” at the Pacific Theatre.


  1. I admire Brown’s cogent and measured conversation, and of course, in principle, he’s right — but making a substantial portion of his income from it still feels a bit like selling illuminated manuscripts or telegrams. And I’m someone who buys a fair bit of sheet music for my kids’ piano lessons.

  2. I can honestly say that I’ve never illegally downloaded or traded sheet music. Of course, I’ve also never bought it either.

    I really wish he’d used fewer “neighbour borrows my hammer and never returns it” analogies. Theft of physical property is rather different (in many respects) to theft/infringement of intellectual property. I find it makes him come across as a bit out of touch.

  3. Brown strikes me as an asshole, actually. He’s really patronizing at the end of his “jeremiad” (who the heck uses a word like that anyways?) I hate it when people play the “absolutes” game when they’re talking to teenagers. “All you rotten teenagers think everybody owes you everything.” What’s that called? Ad hominem? He’s attacking her generation, not her argument.

    He does a pretty crap job of attacking his argument when he does get going. His analogies are logically inconsistent.

    I don’t see him making a solid, cogent case for his right to control the distribution of his own creative work. He could have explained in more direct terms how he makes money from sheet music. If he wanted to be really convincing, he could tell Brenneleanor exactly how much $ he makes off one transaction and how many transactions he’s seen just on that one website, to make her aware of the impact.

    Teenagers are not morally corrupt. They just don’t respect authority for authority’s sake. “Because I said so and I’m your mother/father/superior” doesn’t fly anymore. *GASP* Even the older generations need to learn to use a little logic.

  4. No so young, my friend, the biggest pirates of sheet music are hippy retirees,
    I’m glad to introduce you the club of the happy flower grandads lovers of music
    (I bet they don’t know where is a C in a piano): Horst, Guy, Bob, Evelyn, Daniel,
    very nice people, you can met them in
    Ask them for any advanced thing to make it more exciting, they will run
    to their files got from
    Don’t forget to tell them they are wonderful, they are pretty lonely and
    they need some love by internet

  5. I find it interesting that artists and Hollywood view this purely as theft, and say that offenders should be punished. A law is a law is what they say.

    Imagine if everyone told Hollywood that they should just forgive everyone that is doing this, they should make it easier for people to get their music for free. What if some ISP’s, like Comcast, decided to be sanctuaries, and that they would not help the authorities? What if the courts and authorities refused to lift a finger to help them? What if, when Hollywood were to disagree, they were branded as racists, for no reason other than some people of color downloaded something.

    Hollywood wants to change the world for everyone but themselves.

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