User Profile — Aaron Wolf

Personal Statement

Although the ideals of Free Software and Free Culture ought to appeal to most everyone, I have found that it takes personal understanding to get people to care. Here’s the story of how I came to these issues:

I’ve always been very creative. As a young musician, I was more interested in making my own music than in performing music written by others. I got obsessed with composing after I got my first computer and a copy of music notation software Encore by Passport Designs. By the time I finished high school, I had published two CDs of electronic music made with Encore.

This was before CD burners were affordable and long before online file sharing, and I was strongly in favor of copyright law. When I wanted to share my favorite music with others, I actually went out of my way to purchase multiple copies of obscure albums in order to sell them to friends. I emphasized my copyright in my own second CD with images of me wearing a t-shirt with “© 1998 Aaron Wolf” on the front and “All Rights Reserved” on the back.

Then several things happened which made me question my views.

When broadband internet became available, I began publishing my music at (then a different site from the one today). I got paid for the plays from the website and used a connected service to publish my third CD.

Then Napster came along. I found the whole concept of file sharing overwhelming. A friend showed me how Napster had obscure music that was otherwise not available at all. But I felt it was completely unfair that I had paid for my music collection and now others were just getting music for free. More importantly, I was worried about the future of the music business and my career.

Around the same time, Passport Designs went bankrupt, and Encore stopped being updated. Passport was bought by some obscure company, but they failed to deliver any real updates or support. Over the many years since, there have been only sparse updates to Encore while the new company continues to charge premium prices.

Then was sued by the record industry after they added a service for users to upload their legally-purchased CDs to access remotely. The site went bankrupt and the domain was sold. The core service to independent musicians like me simply disappeared.

These disruptions slowed my creative momentum at the same time that I was busy with the pressures of being a music major in college. It would take enormous time and energy to convert all my past work to new services and software, and I was now worried: What if I chose new programs and online services only to have them disappear again? Or what if they just change policies to my disadvantage? I was uncomfortable being so helpless with what happened with Encore and I wanted control and reliability over the technology upon which I was building my career.1

I figured that, unlike software or web services, nobody could take away time invested in education and skills. So I decided to focus more on my classical guitar degree. Getting into the classical music tradition, further challenged my ideas about copyright and media. Although much of the music I was learning was public domain, I hadn’t thought about this much as I was still paying for published books of sheet music. I remember being shocked when I later discovered the first online collections of public domain sheet music. All of this was available freely‽

As I learned more about copyright law and what was or wasn’t covered, it just seemed so arbitrary. Pieces by Francisco Tárrega were public domain and many editions were widely available and free online. Music from Heitor Villa-Lobos was just a little more recent and was restricted. Most of my fellow music students were oblivious and just copied and shared all sorts of pieces. I failed to find any moral justification for telling them that some of the sharing was fine and other sharing was not.

The more I studied music history and ethnomusicology, the more I came to respect the way all artists build on the past, borrow ideas, and constantly influence each other. I learned to appreciate the value of the public domain, and it seemed it would be great if far more content were added. The question was: if everyone can get so much great public domain music for free, is it still possible to have a career in music composition and recording?

After college, I joined a pop/rock band which played both covers and original music. Being unfamiliar with much of the pop/rock heritage, I decided to go the public library. I took out hundreds of CDs of a wide range of music. I really appreciated the library and would not have otherwise purchased all these albums, some of which I didn’t like (although some selections surprised me and opened my mind to things I wouldn’t have considered if I had to purchase them). I realized that the public library was a lot like the public domain resources except with newer content included. I started to wonder what the ethical difference was between illegal file sharing and using the public library.

All this was happening at the same time as the big media companies started their all-out propaganda and legal campaigns against file sharing. Their message was absurd. Nobody can rationally think that sharing music with your friends was like stealing someone’s purse. Still, I worried about how to have a reliable career in this new media world.

Still following copyright law myself, I resented how others were putting up YouTube performances of Villa-Lobos guitar etudes, yet I was holding back because I knew that was illegal. But I thought: were they doing anything morally wrong? My complaint wasn’t that it was terrible for guitar students to freely share their performance videos. My complaint was that we weren’t all playing by the same rules.

As I switched my focus toward teaching, I decided again to use the library to review method books and other materials. In that research, I found hundreds of publications mostly using the same old public domain songs to avoid copyright issues. Most methods were mediocre and redundant. Many had caricatured music that was clearly intended to be similar to recent pop hits but altered enough to avoid copyright issues. Other books resorted to titles like “Jingle Rock” instead of “Jingle Bells” with no change in the music. I guess they thought kids would like the same music more just because of the title.

Worst of all, I found that many publishers reprint their own copyrighted exercises in dozens of different books with subtle changes and different titles. It seemed to me to be intentional flooding of the market. After all, beginning guitarists don’t have much way to know if a book is a good choice. At least the public library allowed me to become an informed consumer and then recommend the best choices to my students.

I thought of how nice it would be if only I could take the best ideas from different sources and synthesize them into a better whole. Such a project would be quite an undertaking in itself, but I found it totally unrealistic given the requirement to license rights from hundreds or thousands of copyright holders. Even if I could get the rights, the lessons I want to spread include making creative variations and sharing these with other students. It would be even harder to get such open-ended permissions from publishers. Of course, such things are already happening widely, but they are technically illegal.

I could write a new guitar method with my own perspectives, using only public domain material or otherwise creating my own versions of existing exercises — but that approach is what already brought us the thousands of existing books. What’s the point of writing yet another guitar method that would just get lost in all the bulk? I’m not interested in just selfishly trying to get some portion of the sales in an already oversaturated market. The problem isn’t a lack of talented authors, it’s a problem of systemic restrictions that block the synthesis of the best ideas.2

Despite all this, I still supported copyright overall. I just thought there were problems, such as with the length of copyright terms. I wrote a brief statement on my website asking people to follow the Golden Rule and be conscientious in their use of others’ works. Yet as I studied more, I learned about Creative Commons, the history of copyright, and little by little, I finally became convinced that copyright is essentially misguided. My brief statement slowly evolved into a reflective and thorough essay, A Rational View of Copyright.

Throughout this time, I kept searching for reliable software, both for myself and for my students. I came upon a great free program called MuseScore which was about as good as Encore overall and better in some ways. I wanted to understand how it could be free and this led me to the Free Software movement.

I decided to try the entirely Free GNU/Linux operating system to figure out if it could be adequate for my music making and teaching. What I found was a remarkable community with neat programs, all of which seemed close to what I needed but usually just lacking in a few ways. Reliability was still a problem because many developers worked on programs only in their spare time. When programmers get busy with other things, tools that held great promise can become neglected or abandoned. At least with Free Software, projects can be adopted by other developers, but there’s simply far more to do than limited time and funding allow.

One program I found in my searches was Task Coach, which is now my main personal organizing system. Like many other Free programs, Task Coach did some things far better than any proprietary option, yet many elements were rough, and many obvious improvements just weren’t fully implemented. I greatly appreciated it being Free/Libre, and I wanted to help out, but I wasn’t a programmer. I also worried that if I donated money, my lone impact would be minimal.

I kept thinking: All of the funding that goes to proprietary software could, in principle, go to Free Software; all of the funding for copyright restricted music and educational resources could, in principle, go to works licensed with Creative Commons. The value to society would be greater if everyone has access and ability to build upon the work of others. The resources exist, and people are obviously willing to pay. There must be a way to get people to continue to fund projects even if they are released freely…

I decided to contact the Task Coach developers and mention my ideas. “I want to to contribute,” I said, “but I want to make some agreement where I’ll donate some amount for everyone else who donates too.” The developers found this idea intriguing but weren’t sure how to implement it. They did, however, invite me to join the development team to help with bug testing, user support, design, and documentation. I was flattered and curious to know more about the process from an inside perspective, so I accepted the offer and became a software developer!

A few weeks later, I was chatting with my friend David, and I mentioned my involvement with Task Coach. I told him my concerns about funding dilemmas and my wishes for a better funding system. To my surprise, his reply was: “Let’s do it! I’ll put up a website and you write down the proposals and file the paperwork. What should we call it?”

I suggested the name have something to do with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, given the problem of how to achieve cooperation on funding when it is so easy freeload. David mentioned the Snowdrift Dilemma and it really seemed a great fit. Now that these ideas have a concrete direction, I am optimistic.

I hope that the system we’ve designed can help address my concerns and lead to a world of software, educational resources, research, and culture that have greater reliability, access, openness, and freedom.

Further stories of unreliable technology in the music world:

  • In 2002, Apple Computer bought Emagic, maker of the Logic digital audio workstation software. Soon, Apple simply discontinued the very popular Windows version of Logic, thus forcing users to either switch to Mac, switch software, or be stranded with old software that would never be updated.

  • After shut down, a service called started up and took its place largely, but has itself since shut down. There are many disparate systems now, but it is hard to know what is reliable or best respects the users. YouTube is notorious for taking down videos erroneously or when they are clearly fair use. Aside from self-hosting, the most reliable is probably the superb non-profit site

  • Another notation program, Sibelius, presented another more recent example of the threat of proprietary software disappearing. Avid Technology bought the Sibelius notation program and later laid-off most of the developers as part of cost-cutting due to unrelated financial troubles in their larger business. Although it may not turn out as badly as Encore’s case, Avid certainly has the power to invest very little and just milk the current Sibelius version for extra sales until the user community eventually dies. With Free/Libre/Open software, the laid-off developers (or someone else) could have simply forked the project and continued their work.

  1. And these are just a handful of examples connected to my personal experience.

  2. Here’s another teacher’s expressive and succinct statement: How Copyright Hinders Music Education by Janet Underhill