You’d think it’d be pretty easy to live within the copyright laws, or at least to understand them: if you want something of value, you pay for it.
But two things happened this week that are enough to rattle anyone who thinks it’s that simple.
First, I was alerted to a blog post by Jason Robert Brown. He’s a songwriter and the composer of Broadway musicals like “13,” “The Last Five Years” and “Parade.” (I knew him when he was just starting out and I was still working on Broadway.) He became alarmed at how many pieces of sheet music to his songs were available through free, illegal downloads online. And after tolerating it for years, he finally tried an experiment.
He contacted each person on the download board like this: “Hey there! Can I get you to stop trading my stuff? It’s totally not cool with me. Write me if you have any questions; I’m happy to talk to you about this.”
You can read the full story here. But in short, one articulate young lady decided to push back, explaining her rationale for downloading his songs. What follows is a lengthy, sometimes testy back-and-forth — and an even lengthier, more passionate torrent of discussion in the comments for his post.
In the end, I side with Mr. Brown. One of his songs costs $4 in sheet music form; that doesn’t seem unreasonable. His teenage challenger’s argument is that her parents don’t support her singing career — but I don’t see why it’s Mr. Brown’s obligation to sacrifice on her behalf.
I was pretty sure of myself — until I heard from my friend Michael Hawley, formerly of the M.I.T. Media Lab, now a digital-media researcher, award-winning pianist and polymath. After reading Mr. Brown’s account, he wrote to explain why he thinks sheet music pirating is O.K., or even necessary.
Here’s what he says: