Thursday, February 21, 2008

Crucem Tuam, and copyleft

Aristotle Esguerra, composer and chant master in New York, and proprietor of, has published a very beautiful and singable motet for Lent: Crucem Tuam. We are going to read through this tonight at rehearsal. For a choir that sings mostly music that is 500-1500+ years old, there is a special irony or thrill or something that comes with singing new music that is truly sacred in the tradition of the old masters.

In particular, I would like to draw attention to manner in which Aristotle chose to publish this. He has put it on the Choral Public Domain Library, which means that it is free to download and sing. The copyright status he chose is called the Free Art License. In one sense, it is better than the creative commons approach used by most bloggers. The CC license seems to restrict marketing opportunities and imposes a price control of $0 on the work in question

(Added: a comboxer says I'm wrong on this point, which I might be in fact. More: I am in fact wrong here. Creative Commons has many options, among which is a public domain license. Very nice, but there is still an appeal to the Free Art License that requires nothing other than a declaration.)

The Free Art License is broader and more liberal: it respects the artist but permits distribution or modification of all kinds. It is the closest thing to public domain (the only difference, so far as I can tell, is that public domain works are uncopyrightable, presumably, whereas "copylefting" leaves open the possibility of profitability, both for the artist and for others).

There is not question of his primary motivation here, which is thoroughly pious. Aristotle says "If a piece is good, people will want it, legally or illegally. I would at least want my sacred music (if it is good) to be distributed as widely as possible, as freely as possible, touching as many souls as possible, as a gift to the Church and the world, while making sure that I receive credit for my work."

But there is a practical advantage as well. Under current copyright law, works are restricted by legislation for the life of the author plus 70 years, which, in practical terms, means forever. If it were in conventional copyright, this piece could be doomed to obscurity, no matter how good it is. Let's say, for example, that in ten years, he decides to move to France to be a taxi driver and drop out of music completely. Someone finds this work in a choir loft and wants to make a copy. He would have to hunt down the Aristotle and ask his permission. This might not be possible. And the costs of doing so are very high indeed. Or let's say he dies and the rights to his works are somehow settled in probate, or maybe they are forgotten about completely. Fully seventy years will have to pass before this work can be sung again. This is artistic death. This situation will not do.

Everyone knows that in the age of digital downloads, something has to change about copyright, which is a relic of the Elizabethan era and one of the last of the mercantilistic superstitions to survive into the modern age. The law has gotten worse and worse and worse throughout the decades. Future generations are going to suffer terribly for the crazy mistakes of legislators in the last decades--all prompted by the lobbying of a handful of aggressive and well-heeled publishers. So this reality is dawning on people, finally, and alternatives are being sought out. Aristotle is to be commended for not only his creative accomplishment in his music but also for leading the way in innovative measures to see to it that his work does as much good as it can.

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