Musician/Media Professor Explains Why Teenager Was Right In Debate With Composer
from the look-to-the-future dept
We recently discussed the email debate held between a teenager and composer Jason Robert Brown, where the teen tried to convince Brown that he was overreacting to people trading copies of his sheet music online. The debate was pretty interesting, and we (not surprisingly) sided with the teen. The NY Times’ David Pogue has now written about that story as well, at first saying that he sided with Brown, claiming that the teen’s claim that she has no way to buy his sheet music because her parents won’t pay for it and she has no credit card is unpersuasive because “I don’t see why it’s Mr. Brown’s obligation to sacrifice on her behalf.” To that, I have to ask, what sacrifice? What has Brown “lost” in allowing Eleanor to download a copy of his sheet music? She not only wouldn’t pay for it, she couldn’t. There’s no doubt that there is no loss at all here, and thus, no sacrifice.
But where the Pogue blog post gets really interesting is that he spoke to Michael Hawley, an award winning musician and former MIT Media Lab guy, who totally sides with the teen, and says that downloading sheetmusic without paying for it isn’t just okay, but it’s necessary. Here’s some of what he wrote, though you should read the whole thing in Pogue’s post:
I play the piano. Over the years, I have collected 15,000 piano scores in PDF form, covering about 400 years of classical keyboard works.
It’s like lint in the drier of the Internet. Much of it is not available anywhere for purchase, or even findable in libraries for circulation. Max Reger’s arrangement for two pianos of Wagner’s overture, for instance? Well, the Max Reger Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany has a copy….
Fortunately, over the last ten or fifteen years, amateur pianists have been scanning the contents of their grandmother’s piano benches, and… voila. A million monkeys typing don’t get you Shakespeare, but a million monkeys scanning — that makes a dent. I began collecting this stuff as a hobby. One day, I looked at my pile of music score bits. In those days, 15 gigabytes was most of my hard drive. But it was all there. All of Bach. All of Scriabin. All of Rachmaninoff.
At the Van Cliburn piano competition, a couple years ago, I gave tiny thumb drives to some of the winners and said, “Enjoy.” Each thumb drive was smaller than my pinky but contained was the whole 15 GB trove. It blew their minds. Basically, every significant piano piece is in the pile.
What happened is, the classical piano sheet music publishing world plotzed a long time ago. But thanks to the monkeys, a lot of DNA has been preserved and is more available now than ever before. The monkeys aren’t as well organized as the Wikipedia minions, but someday they will be.
The point is pretty clear — and it’s one we’ve made many times in the past. What these people are doing is not just sharing culture, but it’s preserving and bolstering culture. Those who focus on the copyright issue only miss out on the fact that when you put a toll booth on cultural references, many of those references lose their value. In the end, Hawley notes “Generally, I side with the teenagers.” It’s really a question of whether you’re looking at what the law says or what the technology allows. Those who stick by the law are missing out on why the law is outdated, and purposely shutting yourself off from the wonderful things technology can do makes very little sense.