Frédéric Chopin passed away more than 160 years ago -- sufficiently long ago that today all of his compositions belong to the public domain.
Yet, despite this, if you wanted to make a movie with Chopin's Nocturne in C-Sharp minor playing in the background, chances are you'd have to pay royalties to do so. Why is that?
The reason points to a little wrinkle in the public domain, one that commonly plagues classical works: While the music is technically in the public domain (and you are free to play it, perform it, record it however you like), recordings of these public-domain works tend to be copyrighted. (You can thank this little wrinkle for all the terrible "hold" music you've been subjected to over the years.)
A Kickstarter project, "Set Chopin Free," aims to do exactly what its name suggests: Release Chopin recordings from their copyright cell.
Here's how it works: If the project successfully meets its fundraising goal ($75,000 by Sunday, October 20), it will hire musicians (some of the best Chopin pianists in the world) to record and release to the public under a CC0 license the entirety of Chopin's life's work, some 245 pieces. Then, if you're making a movie (or writing a Wikipedia page, or a blog post, or whatever else you might be doing) and looking for that particular Nocturne, you'll have a place to turn to.
The project is the second such effort of Aaron Dunn, the founder of Musopen, a non-profit devoted to creating free, public-domain music resources -- recordings, sheet music, educational materials, etc. Dunn's first Kickstarter, in 2010, raised $68,000 (crushing its $11,000 goal) resulting in public-domain recordings of a long list of significant classical compositions, including Beethoven's third symphony, four Brahms symphonies, Bach's Goldberg Variations, two Mozart string quartets, and much more. The recordings were completed last summer.
Over email, Dunn told me that Musopen's recordings have since found their way to TV shows, commercials, Wikipedia pages, hold music at one dentist's office, and the waiting room of the New York state assembly in Albany (he believes). His favorite use so far was an integration with the One Laptop Per Child project, which will make classical music more accessible to kids all over the world. "USC film students who often write that without Musopen, they would have to steal music from CDs to use in their independent films," he added, "as they can't afford to pay for licenses otherwise."
Dunn notes that he found that support for Musopen isn't coming from the traditional bastions of classical music funding but from a younger generation. "I wish all the professional orchestras I reached out to to record for this project knew how many of my donors are between the ages of 18-35," he wrote. "They are desperate to develop a younger audience, yet are steadfastly opposed to trying new things that are likely to gain interest, sticking with Facebook pages or Twitter accounts."
By making this music free online, Dunn hopes to foster an appreciation for classical music among the Kickstarter set. He writes, "A young person just starting to explore classical music, without even knowing if they like it, would have to spend close to $100 or more on CDs to get the equivalent of what we released for free."