International Music Score Library Project, or The Problem with Wikis


The November/December issue of Online Magazine includes an article on the "Top Ten Sites for Researching Music" (vol. 31, no. 6, pp. 15 - 21.) One of the top ten sites is the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), which is, or rather I should say was, "a virtual library of public domain music scores" that anyone could contribute to, "with the understanding that scores under copyright cannot be uploaded." As current as this magazine issue is, Prof. Robin Harris of the library staff noticed that the site is already down. I called it up and found online a long open letter. The letter says that the founder and project manager of IMSLP was experiencing two problems. One, he says that he is a college student and he was experiencing difficulties managing the site adequately. This included problems of server maintenance and implementation of new features. Two, he had received two Cease and Desist letters from Universal Edition. I assume that if he is receiving such letters, contributors must have uploaded scores that allegedly are not in the public domain. One problem with wikis of this sort is that the public does not understand public domain. Many people assume that works are in the public domain when in fact they are not. The Project Leader, "Feldmahler," mentions in his letter receiving pro bono assistance from "two outstanding university law teams" and he also thanks a copyright review team, but there is no indication what purpose or function these teams served. Another problem is that this site appeared to require a lot of time and effort, but was apparently run on a shoestring. Feldmahler mentions great efforts on the part of many people, but he emphasizes that he, "a normal college student, has neither the energy nor the money necessary to deal with this issue..." other than to "take down the entire site." "I very unfortunately simply do not have the energy or money necessary to implement the terms in the cease and desist in any other way." Unfortunately, in copyright, many times you get as much justice as you can afford.


This situation illustrates a problem that libraries face every day. If we pay for information in traditional formats, it is not as attractive and user-friendly as it is in digital format. It also takes up a lot of space, and requires effort and money to process and maintain. If we pay for information in electronic form, we don't own and control the media; we're only licensing it. If a company goes out of business, as did IMSLP, or if the information provider decides to change the scope of coverage, then we're out of luck. We can buy the information both in traditional and electronic forms, but if we do that we're using finite resources to duplicate information, which means we aren't providing our patrons with access to the breadth of information that we could.