Composer Busts Teen for Sheet Music Sharing: Moral Victory or Total Waste of Time?

I’m late to this party, but the Internet has been abuzz about a blog post by the musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown in which he relates the frustrating experience of trying to convince people to stop trading his sheet music on a sheet music trading site (if you didn’t know such sites existed, now you do). He received positive responses from many traders, but resistance from others, in particular a teenager named Eleanor. A selection from their email exchange follows.


…you’re offering several of my songs and scores for “trade” on this website. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t do that, since it affects my livelihood considerably when people can get free copies of my work from strangers and I don’t get anything in return. I’m glad you like my songs and I hope you’ll keep playing and singing them, but please don’t “trade” them on the Internet, especially with people you don’t know.


…Why are you doing this? I just searched you on this site and all of the stuff that people have of yours up there say that it’s “Not for Trade Per Composer’s Request.” Did you think about the aspiring actors and actresses who really need some good sheet music? … a lot of people who would love to have [Brown's] sheet music can’t afford it. Thus the term “starving artist.” Performers really need quick and easy ways to attain good sheet music and you’re stopping a lot of people from getting what they need. It matters a great deal to them that they can get it for free. Why does it matter so much to you that they don’t?

Eleanor also states that she can’t buy his music because she doesn’t have a credit card and can’t use her parents’ card, and says that she should be able to download Brown’s sheet music for free because she might expose other people to it, winning Brown new fans and securing greater royalties for Brown down the road. Brown says that the same result would be achieved by the legal purchase of his music.

After being asked by Eleanor why he is not “supporting the theater community” and why he is “doing this,” Brown explains his motivation:

…I think it’s annoying and obnoxious that people think they’re entitled to get the sheet music to my songs for free, and I’d like to make those people (you, for example) conscious of the immorality, illegality, and unfairness of their behavior…. You assume that because a good thing comes from an illegal act, it’s therefore mitigated. That’s nonsense. I’m glad people want to sing my songs, and I’m glad that when other people hear them, they enjoy them – that doesn’t mean I surrender my right to get paid for providing the sheet music.


I’m not saying that you’re not somewhat right in the way you’re thinking, but you’re also defiantly wrong. Would it be wrong for me to make a copy of some sheet music and give it to a close friend of mine for an audition? Of course not. In fact, it would be considered nasty of me to refuse. But to trade sheet music online is bad? This website is not even technically illegal. Since the music is never actually uploaded onto the site and is sent via email from one user to another, I’m breaking no law by participating in it. You think I don’t look this stuff up?

…I never said that it was an amazing thing happening and I never said that it doesn’t start with what I’m sure seems to you as a bad thing. I “assume that because a good thing comes from an illegal act, it’s therefore mitigated”? Well, I have just explained that it is not illegal, so we will leave that alone. Yes. I assume that because something that good comes from something so insignificantly negative, it’s therefore mitigated.

Brown concludes with a lengthy explanation of his position and his understanding of copyright law:

[J]ust because technology makes doing a bad thing easier doesn’t mean it’s suddenly not a bad thing…. The way I get paid is that people buy the work that I do, and I get a percentage of that money – other percentages go to the publishers, the bookstores, the theaters, the actors, the typesetters, the copyists, the musicians, the designers, the operators, even the libraries since the government takes a piece and that’s how it funds everything you rely on in your everyday life. You think you’re entitled to deny all of those people their rightful share of the work they do. I don’t understand why you think that.

…[I]t is your responsibility as a citizen, as a member of the theatrical community, and as a considerate human being to pay attention to the laws, ethics and customs that make it possible for you to do the thing you love…

I’m sorry if you still think I’m a jerk, but what I’m talking about here is not “insignificant.” The entire record business is in free-fall because people no longer feel the moral responsibility to buy music…. All of us who write music for the theater are very much concerned that the sheet music business will eventually go the same way as the record business. I’m doing my little part to keep that from happening.

Brown then posted the exchange on his blog and received over a hundred comments, many calling him an out-of-date, doomed dinosaur and many others expressing the “everything should be available for free downloading always” viewpoint common on tech media sites. A blog called Digital Society then used Brown’s post as a jumping-off point to attack many common pro-copying arguments from a rightsholder perspective.

Although I haven’t included many of them here, most of Brown’s arguments are moral ones. He thinks it’s morally wrong to engage in file-sharing because it’s tantamount to stealing. He also makes a few practical business arguments, including that file-sharing will hurt the financial interests of the musical theater community. He also offers a few legal arguments, explaining his understanding of fair use and directing Eleanor to Wikipedia to read up on copyright law.

The problem with Brown’s arguments is that they’re all easily refuted with some popular counterargument. Eleanor’s moral and business counterarguments are utilitarian: copying harms the composer but benefits others in the community, and exposure stemming from illegal copying will result in greater sales somewhere down the line. Her legal argument is simply that her conduct is not technically illegal. Of course, she might be wrong, but she has no incentive to find out, so she feels happy about her response. The availability of these common counterarguments allows her to remain secure in her belief that what she’s doing isn’t wrong.

Brown overlooks several arguments that might have carried greater weight. He doesn’t argue that it violates the norms of the musical theater community to copy music and that her reputation will be damaged by engaging in such conduct. And he doesn’t argue that the penalties for violating copyright law are severe or explain to her why her conduct is illegal.

Brown also seems to think that copyright has a moral component which comports with his general sense that copying is stealing. In fact, the stated purpose of copyright in the United States is a practical one: “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” Copyright is a means to an end. It has a specific stated purpose: adding to our country’s store of knowledge.

Worst of all, though, while Brown goes back and forth with a teenager about the philosophical implications of her Internet behavior, he is staring a lost business opportunity in the face. She specifically says that she is a fan of his but that she can’t purchase his sheet music from an online retailer because she doesn’t have a credit card. He responds, effectively, “tough luck,” because he wants to educate her that what she’s doing is morally wrong. Of course, while educating this hapless teen, he could also have been:

Brown’s mistakes support my general impression that creators who think practically, not philosophically, about digital copying do the best job of adapting to the digital environment of the 21st century. Brown expends a great deal of effort mulling over the moral, philosophical, and economic issues associated with unauthorized digital copying. Meanwhile, some competitor of Brown’s is treating it like a business problem… and fixing it. Given the choice, which do you think would be a better use of Brown’s time:

I hate to be crass about someone’s art, but Brown’s not really talking about art. He’s talking about the mechanics of selling copies of his art on the Internet. Brown, and artists like him, ought to spend a little less time on Wikipedia or and a little more time surfing CDBaby, Lulu or Etsy.

This entry was posted by Richard on Thursday, September 9th, 2010 at 8:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response below, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. September 9th, 2010

    @ 1:38 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ross Grady, 95years. 95years said: New on 95years: Composer Busts Teen for Sheet Music Sharing: Moral Victory or Total Waste of Time? [...]

  2. September 9th, 2010

    @ 2:35 pm

    Ric posted:

    For your argument to work you have to believe she’d buy it if she could do so via other means? I’m not sure I do.

  3. September 9th, 2010

    @ 10:25 pm

    Richard posted:

    Right – I’m taking her at her word that she’d spend the $4 if she had a credit card. One aspect that’s difficult for me to address is her statement that starving artists need cheap sheet music, so they’re justified in copying it for free. $4 a song doesn’t seem cheap to me, but neither does it seem outrageously expensive. I’m sure there are teenagers out there who think spending any money on something that could be downloaded for free is silly, but I can’t tell off the bat if this girl is one of them.

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