Normally, one assumes that if you operate your business exclusively within the confines of a single country, you need concern yourself with only the laws of that particular country. Doing business on the Internet challenges this assumption as illustrated by the recently forced hiatus of classical music site International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP).
IMSLP is a free online library which offers its visitors copies of musical scores that are in the public domain. The site’s owner, its server and its operations are based in Canada so it relied on Canadian law when determining which musical scores were in the public domain and could be permissibly offered through the site.
According to Canadian law, a work falls into the public domain fifty years after the death of its creator. However, the law of the United States and many European countries give copyright another twenty years and do not place a work into the public domain until seventy years after the death of the creator. Universal Edition, an Austrian-based music publisher of classical music, issued a cease-and-desist letter to IMSLP. In the letter, Universal Edition identified itself as the administrator of several classical music scores that were offered on IMSLP and that were still under the protection of copyright law in Austria. Universal Edition then threatened legal action applying Austrian law if the IMSLP did not either remove the relevant scores or provide a filtering system to block access to the scores by users in the European Union.
If IMSLP has no other connections to Austria other than the site being passively available to users located in Austria, it’s a long shot that Universal Edition would be successful in applying Austrian law or filing suit against IMSLP in an Austrian court. However, being a non-profit site founded by a current student and run by volunteers, IMSLP was not in a financial position to fight this legal battle and ultimately decided to close the site – at least temporarily. The site founder, who identifies himself as Feldmahler, explains, “ . . . as a student I did not have the resources to resist even an absurd threat from a company with money to pay lawyers to attack music.” You can find the open letter from IMSLP explaining the situation here.
Fortunately, Feldmahler has not completely given up on the project. Although the website is on indefinite hiatus, he writes “. . . I will not be taking major actions with regards to IMSLP until the end of this semester . . . However, I will continue accepting offers to own or host IMSLP, very preferably by Canadian organizations . . . I will also be responding to e-mails and discussion on the forums, . . . IMSLP is not dead.”