Thursday 31 March 2011

Much Ado About Kindergarten

I have been following for some time now - and with growing bemusement - a heated debate in Germany over the use of sheet music in nursery schools. The apple of discord is a letter from German collecting society GEMA, sent on behalf of another German collecting society (VG Musikedition, which represents composers, lyricists and publisher of sheet music) to some 36,000 German nursery schools. In said letter, GEMA reminds the nursery schools that under German copyright law you need a licence to copy sheet music and proposes the conclusion of a respective licence agreememt.

So far, so normal, one may think, but to most of the German press, this simple occurrence was a complete outrage. Emotions running high, most headlines read something along the lines of "Nursery Schools to Pay for Singing!" and "GEMA Rip-off in Kindergarten!" Inevitably, politicians jumped on the bandwagon: Sibylle Laurischk (of liberal democratic FDP) said that "singing in nursery schools is a basic part of education" and that, therefore, GEMA should exempt nursery schools from paying licences ( Heiko Maas (of social democratic SPD) echoed the "rip-off in kindergarten" view and said singing in nursery schools was an expression of an untroubled childhood ( They and most other critics conveniently ignored that the letter did not actually concern the singing of any songs whatsoever. Unless nursery school children perform at a public event, they may sing whatever they like free of charge.

What the letter does concern is the copying of sheet music. German law only contains a very limited private copy exception for sheet music. According to s. 53 subs. 4 lit. a) German Copyright Act, one may only make a copy of a graphic recording of a musical work (1) by means of manual copying, (2) for the inclusion in a personal archive if and to the extent the reproduction is necessary for that purpose and a PERSONAL copy of the work is used to make the reproduction, or (3) if the copy is for personal use AND the work has been out of print for at least two years. All other uses require a licence from the right holder. GEMA (as instructed by VG Musikedition) now offers such licences to nursery schools for €56 per annum for up to 500 copies, € 112 for up to 1,000 copies and so on. So that's roughly €0.11 per copy (if you get a licence for up to 2,500 copies or more, the rate decreases slightly).

That is, if you actually make copies. I don't know about the esteemed readers of this blog, but when I was at nursery school, I learned songs by repeating from and singing along with my teachers. Most children aged three to six can arguably neither read lyrics nor musical notation, so the number of copies needed (if any) should in most cases be accordingly minor. Also, one may, of course, copy public domain works to one's heart's content. Concerning the arrangement of such public domain works, s. 3 sent. 2 German Copyright provides that "insignificant adaptations of a non-protected musical work shall not enjoy protection as independent works."

One good thing that has come out of this at times rather ludicrous debate is a collection of just such public domain songs suitable for children (which make me feel about four years old and can be downloaded here: The initiators, Frankfurt-based "Musikpiraten e.V." have pledged to print some 50,000 copies of the booklet and donate them to nursery schools throughout Germany; the campaign is funded by charitable contributions from a range of companies and individuals who raised about €40,000 in less than two months ( - quite an achievement!

One maybe or maybe not so good thing is a draft bill for an amendment of the German Copyright Act submitted to the Bundestag by the parliamentary group of socialist party DIE LINKE ("The Left"). I shall mercilessly dissect it in a separate blog post tomorrow, so watch this space.

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