The International Music Score Library Project was a quiet Canadian success story. Using wiki technologies, it emerged over the past two years as a leading source of public domain music scores, hosting thousands of scores uploaded by a community of students, teachers, and others in the music community. The site was very careful about copyright – only those works in the public domain (as many readers will know, public domain in Canada is life of the author plus an additional 50 years) were hosted on Canadian servers and the site was responsive to complaints about possible infringements.
On Friday, the site was taken down. Universal Edition AG, an Austrian publisher, retained a Toronto law firm to send a cease and desist letter to the Canadian-based site claiming that the site was infringing the copyright of various composers. It appears that the issue was not that posting the works in Canada infringed copyright but rather that some of the works were not yet in the public domain in Europe, where the copyright term runs for an additional 20 years at life of the author plus 70 years. As is so often the case, a labour of love for a large, non-profit community was wiped out with a single legal demand letter.
In this particular case, UE demanded that the site use IP addresses to filter out non-Canadian users, arguing that failing to do so infringes both European and Canadian copyright law. It is hard to see how this is true given that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that sites such as IMSLP are entitled to presume that they are being used in a lawful manner and therefore would not rise to the level of authorizing infringement. The site was operating lawfully in Canada and there is no positive obligation in the law to block out non-Canadians.
As for a European infringement, if UE is correct, then the public domain becomes an offline concept, since posting works online would immediately result in the longest single copyright term applying on a global basis. That can't possibly be right. Canada has chosen a copyright term that complies with its international obligations and attempts to import longer terms – as is the case here – should not only be rejected but treated as copyright misuse.
Update: The lawyer for Universal Edition AG has contacted me to advise that some of the works on ISMLP allegedly infringed Canadian copyright as being within life of the author plus 50 years. It is not clear, however, whether UE actually provided the site owner with a list of those works (the posted letter certainly does not include any such list).