Team Open

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Thomas Bonte

Bringing public domain music to the public.

When Thomas Bonte and his colleagues decided to launch a Kickstarter project to record their friend Kimiko Ishizaka’s rendition of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, they knew they’d want the end result to be available for others to freely use, share, and even remix.

To fully encourage these kinds of uses, Thomas and his cohorts decided to dedicate it to the public domain. So they used CC0, Creative Commons’ “no copyright reserved” option. “You either go all the way or you don’t do it,” Thomas says. The resulting Open Goldberg Variations has no restrictions on use (just like Bach’s original composition) and has been used by filmmakers and video creators around the world to soundtrack their work.

Classical music can be an expensive habit. Sure, the majority of classical works are old enough to be in the public domain, but high-quality, modern recordings aren’t, and sheet music often isn’t either. And if you want to try your hand at composing, notation software can cost you a thousand dollars. Thomas Bonte wants to change that.

Thomas and his colleagues Nicolas Froment and Werner Schweer are the minds behind MuseScore, an open-source notation program. And if you ask Thomas, free is the only choice that makes any business sense at all.

Early on, Thomas and his team realized that the free price tag wasn’t enough to compete with other notation tools on the market; they had to produce the highest quality product. “When we’d visit music schools, we’d always ask, ‘Who is using a legal license for Finale or Sibelius [MuseScore’s two biggest competitors]?’ Often, only the teacher would raise his hand, which means that all of the students were using cracked versions. We realized that we weren’t competing with high-priced software. We were competing with free, pirated software. We had to fight them on the product level.”

Today, MuseScore is the most popular notation software in the world. But more than that, it’s a growing community of people sharing their own compositions as well as their typesettings of public domain ones. People can upload videos of their own performances with a neat app that lets viewers follow along simultaneously with the sheet music. Many of these compositions are Creative Commons–licensed, meaning that anyone can perform, record, or adapt them for free, as long as they obey the terms of the license.

The MuseScore team wanted to encourage even more composers and performers to use open licenses, so they set out to demonstrate what can happen when artists share their music freely and openly. Coincidentally, their friend, pianist Kimiko Ishizaka, had been rehearsing Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. They decided to start a Kickstarter project to record Goldberg.

In discussions with Kimiko, they decided not just to CC-license the recording; they would dedicate it completely to the public domain, using a tool called CC0. When a work has been placed under CC0, anyone can use it for any purpose with no restrictions on use, just like Bach’s original composition. They also released a new typesetting for Goldberg, also under CC0. Why public domain? In Thomas’ words, “You either go all the way or you don’t do it. Kimiko wanted her work to be used by a lot of artists. And yeah, mission accomplished.” The Open Goldberg Variations has been used in films, videos, and even more prosaic purposes like hold music on office phone systems.

Kimiko is going back into the studio soon — this time, to record Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Once again, all of the recordings and sheet music will be in the public domain under CC0, and this time, it will also be available in braille, for blind musicians. As for Thomas, he’s excitedly planning the future of MuseScore. He wants to take advantage of the community of musicians and composers he’s amassed by crowdsourcing more CC0 typesettings and recordings of public domain compositions.

When he’s talking with musicians and composers, he encourages them to think more about the power of open licensing. “You don’t only speak to your audience through your art,” he says. “You also speak to them by giving them permission to use your art. And that can be just as important as the art itself.”

Read more Team Open stories:
Music and film

Creative Commons License

Thomas Bonte (Team Open) was written by Elliot Harmon for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The illustration of Thomas Bonte was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.