ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
More and more consumers are asking this question: Why pay good money for a song when I can get it for free somewhere online? Well, it's not just free music that's out there, but also free sheet music, as Tony Award-winning songwriter Jason Robert Brown discovered. And when he published on his blog a debate with a teenager who had been swapping his sheet music, Brown unleashed a firestorm of responses.
Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN: As a theater songwriter, Jason Robert Brown may not be as well-known as Stephen Sondheim or Stephen Schwartz, but his finely crafted songs have been performed on and off Broadway.
(Soundbite of song, "Stars and the Moon")
Ms. LINLEY BECKNER (Soloist): (Singing) I met a man without a dollar to his name, who had no traits of any value but his smile.
LUNDEN: Brown makes a healthy upper middle-class living from a variety of sources. He gets royalties from productions of his shows. He teaches and performs, and he estimates about a third of his income comes from the sale of sheet music. He'd heard about websites where sheet music is shared without any payment and decided to check one of them out.
Mr. JASON ROBERT BROWN (Songwriter): And I typed in my name, I got 4,000 people, 4,000 individual users who were all saying we have music of Jason Robert Brown and we will trade it. And I thought, well, 4,000 people is an epidemic. That's an enormous amount of possible sales that I'm losing.
LUNDEN: So Brown emailed some of the website's members to tell them to stop. He wrote to about 400 of them - all of whom, he says, agreed.
Mr. BROWN: But then there was one girl who engaged me in a conversation, and I didn't know anything about her other than her name on the website, which was Acting Girl, who was saying, you know, I'm allowed to trade my music all I want and you can't stop me. And so we started a conversation. And that conversation is what's now posted on my blog.
LUNDEN: When Brown published the exchange, his website, which normally gets about 500 hits a day, was suddenly overwhelmed with 150,000 hits in a single week. It turned out that 15-year-old girl touched on some genuine hot-button issues about copyright and digital technology. Brown learned her real name was Eleanor, and he was not comfortable putting us in touch with her. But in one posting, she wrote this, read by an actor:
Unidentified Woman: (as Eleanor) Let's say Person A has never heard of The Great Jason Robert Brown. Let's name Person A Bill. And let's say I find the sheet music to "Stars and the Moon" online, and since I was able to find that music, I was able to perform that song for a talent show. I slate saying: Hi, I'm Eleanor, and I will be performing "Stars and the Moon" from "Songs for a New World" by Jason Robert Brown.
Bill, having never heard of this composer, doesn't know the song or the show. He listens and decides that he really likes the song. Bill goes home that night and downloads the entire�"Songs for a New World" album off iTunes. He also tells his friend Sally about it, and they decide to go and see the show together the next time it comes around. Now, if I hadn't been able to get the sheet music for free, I would have probably done a different song. But since I was able to get it, how much more money was made? This isn't just a fluke thing. It happens.
LUNDEN: It's a position that a lot of rock bands, Nine Inch Nails among them, have adopted.
Mr. BROWN: The argument that Trent Reznor makes is, well, all right, you can all have my music for free. I'll just do more concerts and sell more T-shirts. But musical theater doesn't quite work in that way.
LUNDEN: Of course, there are free legal options for Eleanor. She could check Jason Robert Brown's music out of the library, for instance.
Alex Feerst is a fellow at Stanford Law School, specializing in intellectual property and the Internet. He says, like the recorded music business, the music publishing industry is living in the past.
Mr. ALEX FEERST (Resident Fellow, Stanford Center for Internet and Society): The existing copyright law directs a lot of money to the middlemen in this equation. And in the past, that was appropriate, because printing music, distributing music, pressing CDs, these are expensive, have to be done on a large scale, and they cost money. Now that the costs have really gone down because of the Internet, those types of costs need to be re-examined. And the best thing that could happen would be to enrich artists by passing more along to them and to empower consumers, to have lower prices and choice over how they want to interact with this art.
LUNDEN: Jason Robert Brown could publish and distribute his sheet music through his website and pocket all of the $4 it costs per song instead of the $1.50 or so he gets now by splitting the sale with his publisher. But he says he likes the support he gets from a big music publisher and from ASCAP, the performing rights organization that collects royalties.
Songwriter Paul Williams is ASCAP's president. He says his organization prefers to negotiate with these peer-to-peer websites.
Mr. PAUL WILLIAMS (President, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers): And if we can't deal with them sensibly, in conversation, then we go into the courts. And if the courts don't work, then we have to go to Washington and try to make sure that the laws are adjusted.
LUNDEN: For his part, Jason Robert Brown says he's more interested in working on his new musical adaptation of "Honeymoon in Vegas" than becoming a flag-bearer in the intellectual property wars. He also says he has no hard feelings towards Eleanor.
Mr. BROWN: I think, to a certain extent, the argument might have sunk in with Eleanor. And I think the reason that it might have sunk in is because she was a fan of mine to begin with, and so it mattered to her when I said things like, it's very hard for me to continue doing my work if everybody doesn't pay for it.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(Soundbite of song, "Stars and the Moon")
Ms. BECKNER: (Singing) I'll give you stars and the moon and a soul to guide you and a promise I'll never go. I'll give you hope to bring out all the life inside you and the strength that will help you grow. I'll give you truth and a future that's 20 times better than any Hollywood plot. And I thought, you know, I'd rather have a yacht.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.