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.



  1. Germany’s government has also managed to steer UK copyright law. Recently UK copyright on literary and other works was extended to Germany’s level of 75 years after the author’s death.

    In my own will I request that all my intellectual property will become public domain upon my death, but I’m having problems finding a lawyer who can guarantee this under UK/EU law.

    I don’t have anything that’s definitely a money-spinner at the moment, but you never know, and I’d like to be confident that anyone and everyone can inherit my work when I die. The last thing I want is for a corporation to create a work that they base on mine and then copyright it.

  2. There’s nothing special about copyright. There are plenty of other things that are illegal in some countries but not others. If I assert that the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians (and I do), I’ve violated the law in Turkey. If I attack the king of Thailand for supporting a coup that ended democracy (which he did), I violate the law in Thailand. Does this guy claim that Boing Boing is obliged to take measures to prevent this comment from appearing in Thailand or Turkey?

  3. Sometimes I wonder what this world is coming to.

    But if Canada is going to let a bunch of Germans tell them what to do, they could have saved 60 years and not participated in the Second World War.

    Oh well someone, somewhere is seeing dollar signs and will do whatever they can to make money off of someone elses work.

  4. A significant debate is underway in the courts, the Congress and federal regulatory agencies regarding decisions that are being made within the electronics, content and computer industries – about how to best protect copyrighted material in a digital world. Right now the internet is not safe for users to view or download files without potentially infringing on copyrights and suffering large fines, penalties or even worse.

    An ever-increasing number of unlicensed downloads are taking place in private homes all over the world. According to recent data, over twelve million people are simultaneously sharing 1.08 billion music, movie, and software files on the Internet at any given moment.
    Imagine a person or child sitting down in front of a Television with a remote and selecting a few dozen channels or video on demand selections and finding out later that they have committed copyright infringement and are being asked to pay several hundred thousand dollars in fines. What makes this even worse is there is really no way to determine if a certain piece of content is appropriate for use, copyrighted or not, until the damage is already done.

    A typical internet user does not build the internet applications, program the search engines, or manage the internet networks that they use. More could be done with these key elements of the internet to insure that standards are set that provide a higher degree of safety from copyright infringement or exposure to inappropriate content. We live in a society that requires people to wear seat belts; Why?, because they provide an additional layer of protection from unnecessary injury.

    A national copyright and rating database could serve as a seat belt for the internet to protect users from injury as well. Copyrighted materiel could be registered along with an associated audience rating of the content allowing internet applications, search engines and network operators to establish national standards for digital rights management.
    Now is the time for us all to work together to provide a level of protection from unnecessary injury and make the internet safe again for average citizens in their homes.
    Thank you for your leadership in this important social and technological issue.

  5. I am the Canadian lawyer who sent the cease-and-desist letter on behalf of Universal Edition AG.

    I would refer your readers to to see the position of Universal Edition on this matter. Please note in particular that Universal Edition AG has repeatedly stated that works that are public domain in Canada are not at issue. Universal Edition is trying to protect its European copyright and not extend it into public domain jurisdictions.

    One method of protecting European copyright while allowing legitimate users to download material is through geographical IP filtering, which was suggested as a solution to this complex issue in my letter.

    Yours truly,

    Ken Clark

  6. Dear Ken (#6), as you are well aware of, imslp has been shut down by the music lover running it, taking away 20.0000 scores of classical music. Thank you. And to others, please DO follow the link mr. Clark posted. While UA claims complete cordiality in this matter, you will find the C&D letter by mr. Clark is simply that.

  7. JL wrote: “Imagine a person or child sitting down in front of a Television with a remote and selecting a few dozen channels or video on demand selections”. –

    Ummmm, excuse me but both of those are PAID FOR services. No one has, ever or will ever be “sued” for watching cable TV or Video On Demand! DUH!

    The reason people are being SUED is for STEALING MP3’s that they should otherwise PAY FOR at a store. If that same child as mentioned above went into a store and stole a CD, that child would be arrested. The point is you can not STEAL someone else’s music or the songwriter will not have any way to make money. I am an independent songwriter, I do not perform live, and I do not sell T-shirts, if the child steals from me, the parents will pay a fine. The child will be in trouble just the same as if the child had stolen a CD from the store. (It’s the SAME thing!) I don’t download child porn, and neither should the child steal my songs! We have laws in this country. Teach your children to abide by them, or pay the consequences.

  8. oh and by the way JL….

    STEALING cable TV already is illegal.

    STEALING a TV from the store already is illegal.

    STEALING a CD from the store already is illegal.

    STEALING video on demand already is illegal.

    Changing channels on your “paid for” cable TV service is NOT illegal and never will be. So your analogy is completely ridiculous.

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