German music publisher claims that nothing is public domain until its copyright runs out in every country

Last week, Universal Edition AG, a German publisher, used legal threats to shut down International Music Score Library Project, a Canadian nonprofit collaborative effort to collect the scores for old public domain music. Universal Edition claimed that since Canadian copyright on music scores lasts for 20 years less than European copyright, this public domain music was actually in copyright (somewhere), and that made it illegal to reproduce it on the Web.

As usual, Michael Geist has some spot on analysis:

In this particular case, UE demanded that the site use IP addresses to filter out non-Canadian users, arguing that failing to do so infringes both European and Canadian copyright law. It is hard to see how this is true given that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that sites such as IMSLP are entitled to presume that they are being used in a lawful manner and therefore would not rise to the level of authorizing infringement. The site was operating lawfully in Canada and there is no positive obligation in the law to block out non-Canadians.

As for a European infringement, if UE is correct, then the public domain becomes an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest single copyright term applying on a global basis. That can't possibly be right. Canada has chosen a copyright term that complies with its international obligations and attempts to import longer terms - as is the case here - should not only be rejected but treated as copyright misuse.

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