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Steal my music.

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I’m a member of the Society of Composers, Inc., or SCI. Occasionally (ok, very rarely), there is a conversation on the SCI listserv that I find compelling for one reason or another. Over the last few days, there has been a discussion of photocopying scores. Specifically, choirs performing from photocopied music as opposed to buying enough copies. I would say that anyone who has spent any time singing in choirs has seen this. The composers on the SCI list seem to consider this a personal affront to their cultural value. (The thread is actually called “Choral Crimes”!) Here are a few anonymous quotes from the spicier side of the discourse:

“One of the most serious crimes in our musical community is that of choral directors photocopying the music of living composers in order to illegally perform their music…It is time for singers to report these atrocities!”

“Can we establish some sort of collective to reward whistle blowers?”

“Stealing is stealing. Don’t rationalize it.”

“However, a college or university choral director who photocopies choral parts that are not public domain—and whose choristers know that he does it—he or she is not only breaking the law, but is setting a bad moral and musical example for the singers who respect him or her. Those choral directors ARE evil people!”

First, allow me to say this: piracy, whatever you think of it, is not stealing. Intellectual property law professor Lawrence Lessig 1 points out an important distinction in his book Free Culture. If I steal a score from the music store, that’s a score the store paid for and that they no longer have to sell. However, if I check a score out of the library and make a photocopy, that isn’t depriving anyone of a sale. If I could afford to buy the score, I probably would have. My copying of the score does not represent a lost sale to a music store, a publisher, a distributor, or (most importantly) a composer.

In the SCI discussion, church and school choir conductors  are the chief villains. Churches and schools (particularly public schools) are not exactly known the world over for their bulging arts budgets. The composers taking issue with these performers seem to think that they could put their kids through college if only these horrible, cheapskate conductors would put their money where their batons are and do the “right” thing. WRONG! The options are not photocopying your music on the one hand and purchasing it on the other; the options are photocopying your music and NOT PERFORMING IT AT ALL!

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hear an “illicit” performance of a contemporary work than a legal performance of a public domain work by Mozart or Scarlatti. I’ve sold my music, and I will hopefully continue to do so. But don’t think for a second that I would tell somebody not to copy my work. Steal my music!

Got any thoughts on intellectual property? I knew you would. Feel free to have your voice heard in the comments.


  1. Lessig is also a founder of the Creative Commons project. All of his books are available in print, as well as for free in various digital formats under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.
  • Greg

    I still disagree. Sure, if you give permission then it’s as you say, not stealing. Otherwise, by law it’s still illegal.
    Perhaps it’s the strong words that people use (such as evil) that is problematic. I’ve photocopied. I’ve illegally downloaded music. I don’t like it when I do it and make it a policy to not do it…because I believe it’s wrong and depriving someone of possible income. But I’m not evil…I hope.
    I do agree that I don’t get bent out of shape when people copy my music. I wasn’t making that much from the sales anyway and I would prefer to have it performed. But…
    Yes, they’re still stealing.

    • David MacDonald

      Greg, thanks for stopping by and reading. I agree that piracy is illegal, and I’m certainly not condoning any illegal activity. It is, however, not stealing. If I steal something from you, you no longer have it. That’s not true if I copy your score. Also, as I said, it’s only depriving someone of income if the only other option is purchasing the music, which it isn’t. The other option is not having the music at all.

      I cross-posted this article on the Michigan State composition area’s blog ( A commenter directed me to this excellent talk by Lawrence Lessig, the legal scholar I mentioned above, about intellectual property law’s adverse effects on creativity.

  • Jesse Ayers

    You say: “However, if I check a score out of the library and make a photocopy, that isn’t depriving anyone of a sale.” You certainly HAVE deprived the copyright owner from making a sale. You did not buy the score that is now in your possession, you made a illegal copy, and the copyright owner did not receive any compensation for the considerable work required to compose the music. Under U.S. Copyright Law, that is “infringement,” and is punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. It is punishable because it *is* stealing.

  • Mike

    Hey Greg,
    thanks for continuing this discussion on your blog. I very much enjoy reading about copyright and intellectual property rights. Like other posters, I simply disagree with you, however. Like you, I generally give photocopy releases because I too would rather my music get performed than have it sit on the shelf collecting dust. But, I also prefer to have the right to give that permission or not.

    Regardless of what you (or many many other people) want it to be, however, the US law is pretty clear in this matter.

    A simple google brought this up: “The United States has created enforceable property rights in these “intangible” property rights, and, just like regular personal property that you can see, it is possible for it to be stolen. If you steal someone’s Intellectual Property you could get into both civil and criminal trouble. ” — The Guthrie Firm, PLLC

    Of course there are countless other attorney websites that echo the same thing. In short, although you might want it not be illegal to photocopy, it just is.

  • David MacDonald

    Jesse, you’re looking at this completely dogmatically, and it’s a more complex issue than that. It is punishable because it is copyright infringement, not stealing. The RIAA isn’t taking college students and soccer moms down for theft. The reason it isn’t a lost sale is that I would not have purchased the score. It’s either photocopy or not have it at all. Either way, nobody’s getting paid.

    The RIAA and MPAA have spent millions of dollars trying to convince the general public that copying music and movies is exactly the same as stealing. This is simply untrue. Unfortunately, their marketing campaigns have been extraordinarily effective.

    Mike and Jesse, I’m not saying that it isn’t illegal to photocopy the library’s scores. It absolutely is. What I’m saying is that this isn’t a moral imperative. Intellectual property law is incredibly outdated. We need copyright reform more than we need to prosecute choir directors.

  • Mike

    Hey David (sorry to call you Greg in my last post)-

    I now see your point. Again, I’m not sure I agree that copyright is outdated, but I do understand your position better. We both agree that stealing is wrong. I guess I was thrown by your first statement, “First, allow me to say this: piracy, whatever you think of it, is not stealing.” With that statement, I disagree. Piracy IS stealing IMHO — it does demonstrate a lost sale (eg., if I sell a song for $2, and the buyer photocopies it 50 times, I’ve lost out on $100). We’ll have to agree to disagree maybe.

    But if you’re interested in other points on IP and copyright, you might find the following article interesting. It makes a case for why/how we should revamp copyright. I don’t agree with the article, but it is a creative way of thinking about IP in general.

  • David MacDonald


    You’re missing what I think is one of the really important parts of my argument about copying not representing a lost sale. To take your example, if I wanted to buy your $2 score for my 50-person choir and I only have $2. My options are 1) buy one and make copies for the choir, or 2) not buy your music at all. In this case, copying your score is not taking a sale away from you.

    Anyway, thanks for engaging in the conversation with an open mind. I’ve been pretty shocked at how some of the SCI users dismiss the issue as black and white. I’ll check out that article. Thanks for sharing it. I highly recommend reading a bit of Lessig’s Free Culture. He makes it available free here:

    He’s one of the foremost legal scholarsin the area of intellectual property law. Free Culture is a surprisingly engaging read on what could potentially be an unbearably dry subject.

  • Mike

    Thanks David,

    I’ve known about Lessig for some time. I simply disagree with a lot of what I’ve seen from him, although I don’t know everything he’s written. I understand the “moral” dilemma when dealing with certain types of IP (ie., drug treatments, etc..) and sympathize, but it seems to me that the moral dilemma is best addressed by the creators. For example, you and I have the right to give away our music if we want, but we’re not forced to do so.

    I certainly do understand one of your key points: either buy multiple copies or not buy at all. It may be a bit unfair comparison (there seem to be a lot on scimembers), but isn’t that like saying, “be able to buy a mercedes, or not be able to buy a mercedes.” If you can’t afford it — well, then you can’t afford it. For better or worse, at its genesis, MHO is that I don’t think people have an inalienable “right” to my music. This is probably the singularity you and I will simply not be able to agree on.

    Like you, I prefer to have my music performed, and I certainly give away more of my scores than I sell, but I also prefer to have the right to “give away” my music. BTW, if it goes to a not-for-profit, my accountant generally writes it off at tax time. But then, I also don’t fault people who don’t want to give their music away. Just because it’s good for me and you doesn’t make it good for everyone. In short, I think copyright law seems to work pretty well — in its simplest form, it keeps the rights to sell/give with the creator.

    Once again, thanks for posting this blog. It’s been a lot of fun thinking about these things again.


  • sam

    Mike – I don’t want to sound too gruff here, but I just don’t buy it you when you say, “I’ve known about Lessig for some time. I simply disagree with a lot of what I’ve seen from him, although I don’t know everything he’s written.” What is it you’ve seen from him? If I had to guess, I’d say that you know who he is, but you haven’t read any of his books or articles. I would guess that you, just like others that want to hold on the traditional sense of what copyright protection is, formed an impression about him based on hearsay. And if you had read anything he’s written you wouldn’t say “In short, I think copyright law seems to work pretty well — in its simplest form, it keeps the rights to sell/give with the creator.” Copyright law does a terrible job of helping actual creators. Creators are not the people who benefit from copyright law as it is in the US right now. It benefits the people who pay lobbyists to influence congress – really big media conglomerates. If you would actually read “Free Culture” by Lessig, you’d see the truth in this.