Great music like Beethoven’s symphonies belong to the world because any copyrights that may have ever existed on the works have expired.
But that’s not how it really works.
While the music itself may be in the public domain, the performances of the work are mostly under copyright. When you buy a CD of the London Symphony performing Brahms Symphony 3, the LSO (or more likely, the record company) has the performance copyright on the music. Even most sheet music is copyrighted by the publisher. The music is in the public domain only in the abstract.
The Musopen project is trying to change that. Using donations, they have begun to record these works and release them into the public domain, as well as collect existing public domain recordings. Their goals have been modest to date, but now they’re taking things up a notch with the help of Kickstarter. As of this writing, Musopen has successfully raised enough money to record the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky using a professional orchestra.
Musopen estimated they needed $11,000 to achieve this goal. They have more than $55,000 pledged. This is a testament both to the Web 2.0-fueled power of Kickstarter and the desire of people to have music unencumbered by copyright. With the extra money, MusOpen should be able to record many more works, and hire a top notch orchestra for the performance.
Public domain music is a tremendous artistic and cultural resource. It has a synergistic effect, allowing further creative works to incorporate the music without onerous copyright payments. For an unknown artist or small and struggling filmmaker, public domain music is a godsend.
If you’re interested in donating, there’s still time (funding closes tonight around 10 pm EDT). You can also vote for the project over at the Pepsi Refresh site, which could score Musopen an extra $25,000.