Copyright Advocacy: Fighting With Teenagers - A Copyright Story

I posted the following article on my blog on June 29, 2010. Within hours, it became that rarest of creatures, a viral Internet sensation, and it has been viewed 200,000 times since then. The Dramatists Guild asked if they could reprint that article, so here it is with a couple of small emendations... so as to discuss what I've learned and encountered since I first published it.

Girl Listening to Music
Artwork by DG Creative

I have known for a while that there are websites where you can essentially download sheet music for free, and I am certainly aware that a lot of the sheet music being downloaded in that manner was written by me. While my wife Georgia Stitt has written extensively about this problem, I have tended to sit back, certain that anything I do would just be the tiniest drop in a very large bucket. But about a month ago, I was seized by the idea to try an experiment.

I signed on to the website that is most offensive to me, got an account, and typed my name into the Search box. I got 4,000 hits. Four thousand copies of my music were being offered for "trade." (I put "trade" in quotes because of course it's not really a trade, since nobody's giving anything up in exchange for what they get. It's just making illegal unauthorized copies, and calling it "trade" legitimizes it in an utterly fraudulent way.) I clicked on the most recent addition, and I sent the user who was offering that music an email.

This is what I wrote:

Hey there! Can I get you to stop trading my stuff? It's totally not cool with me. 

Write me if you have any questions, I'm happy to talk to you about this.

Thanks, J.

Nothing too formal or threatening, just a casual sort of suggestion.

But I wasn't content to do it with just one user. I started systematically going through the pages, and eventually, I wrote to about four hundred users.

The broad majority of people I wrote to actually wrote back fairly quickly, apologized sincerely, and then marked their music "Not for trade." I figured that was a pretty good result, but I did find it odd -why list the material at all if you're not going to trade it?

Several other people wrote back, confused about who I was or why I was singling them out, and I would generally write them back, explain the situation, and they too generally would mark their materials "not for trade" or remove them entirely.

But then there were some people who fought back. And I'm now going to reproduce, entirely unexpurgated, the exchange I had with one of them.

Her email comes in to my computer as "Brenna," though as you'll see, she hates being called Brenna; her name is Eleanor. I don't know anything about her other than that, and the fact that she had an account on this website and was using it to trade my music. And I've assumed from context that she's a teenager somewhere in the United States.

On Jun 9, 2010, at 2:38 PM, Brenna wrote:

Sorry. I'm not understanding what you want.

I don't think I've ever traded with you before so I don't think I have any of your stuff to trade. If I have and am, however, and if u have a problem with it, I'll of course stop. But please explain to me what I have and how I'm doing something wrong. Thanks! Sorry.


On Jun 9, 2010, at 5:52 PM, Jason Robert Brown wrote:

Hi Brenna: I'm actually me, Jason Robert Brown, and you're offering several of my songs and scores for "trade" on this website.

I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't do that, since it affects my livelihood considerably when people can get free copies of my work from strangers and I don't get anything in return. I'm glad you like my songs and I hope you'll keep playing and singing them, but please don't "trade" them on the Internet, especially with people you don't know.

Many thanks, Jason

On Jun 9, 2010, at 4:36 PM, Brenna wrote:

Let me get this straight. You expect me to believe that you are Jason Robert Brown. THE Jason Robert Brown.

And that you have taken the time to go onto random websites and create an account just to message people not to trade your sheet music? I don't mean to be rude, but can you see how I have a bit of trouble believing that?

On Jun 9, 2010, at 7:41 PM Jason Robert Brown wrote:

Well, I am me - what would anyone else's motivation be for doing this?

You're getting an email from my actual email address, I don't know what else would convince you, but I can assure you that I really would like you to stop trading my songs online.

Thanks, J.

On Jun 9, 2010, at 7:43 PM, Brenna wrote:

Quite frankly, there could be a lot of people with motives for doing this.

A creeper who thinks he could eventually "prove" that he is who you're claiming to be by getting me to meet with him. Some kid who thinks it's funny to pretend to be a genius composer and get an aspiring actress excited. It's not hard to create an email address with that name in it. I'm just not lucky enough to have someone as famous as Jason Robert Brown email me. It's not something I could easily believe.

On Jun 10, 2010, at 12:03 am, Jason Robert Brown wrote:

Suit yourself, Brenna, but if you can take down my stuff, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.


On Jun 9, 2010, at 9:20 PM, Brenna wrote:

I've taken down your music, but if you're really Jason Robert Brown, l'd like to ask you a question. Why are you doing this?

I just searched you on this site and all of the stuff that people have of yours up there say that it's "Not for Trade Per Composer's Request." Did you think about the aspiring actors and actresses who really need some good sheet music? If you're really who you claim to be, then I assume you know that Parade, Last Five Years, 13 The Musical, etc. are all genius pieces of work and that a lot of people who would love to have that sheet music can't afford it. Thus the term "starving artist." Performers really need quick and easy ways to attain good sheet music and you're stopping a lot of people from getting what they need. It matters a great deal to them that they can get it for free. Why does it matter so much to you that they don't?

On Jun 10, 2010, at 12:28 am, Jason Robert Brown wrote:

I'll answer your question, but I'd like your permission to post the exchange on my website. Deal?


On Jun 10, 2010, at 12:31 am., Brenna wrote:

absolutely! that would actually be kind of cool. but if you wouldn't mind changing my name in it to "Eleanor." I'm not sure why my iPod put it as "Brenna" but that's not what I go by and I don't like that name.



All right, now a couple of weeks went by because it takes me a while to get around to writing these blogs and I have a lot of other stuff going on. Then I got another email from Eleanor.



On Jun 28, 2010, at 4:39 PM, Brenna wrote:

Alright, "Mr. Brown" I have a problem and that problem is your fault.

I need the sheet music to "I'd Give It All For You" but thanks to your little stunt, I can't get it. And I cannot just go to the store and buy it. My parents don't support my theatre all that much and they won't buy it for me. And I need it pronto. If you're actually Jason Robert Brown, what can you do to help me with my situation?

On Jun 28, 2010, at 7:43 pm, Jason Robert Brown wrote:

Well, that's a stupid question, Brenna.

If you "needed" to go see Wicked tonight, you'd need to pay the $140 to do it or you just wouldn't be able to go. And if you couldn't go, you'd have to go do something else. Likewise, you should pay for things that other people create, or you should content yourself with the free and legal options available to you. The sheet music costs $3.99, you can download it in one minute, and you're doing the legal and correct thing. That's what I can do to help you:


On Jun 28, 2010, at 5:17 PM, Brenna wrote:

You know, you never actually answered my original question. Why are you doing this?

In order to download something online legally, a credit card is required and I do not have one of those. As I just said, my parents don't support my theatre and wouldn't give me said necessary credit card. Therefore, I cannot buy it. And it is nothing like going to see a show. And you know it. If you are who you say you are, then you're more intelligent than that. You're a genius and your stuff is amazing to perform, but apparently, you're a jerk. We in theatre should support one another and that's not what you're doing.

On Jun 28, 2010, at 8:23 pm, Jason Robert Brown wrote:

Brenna, How are you supporting me by stealing my song off the Internet?

Why are you entitled to get the sheet music for free?


On Jun 28, 2010, at 5:35 PM, Brenna wrote:

Let's say Person A has never heard of "The Great Jason Robert Brown."

Let's name Person A "Bill." 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. I've heard songs at talent shows or in theatre final exams and decided to see the show because of the one song. And who knows how they got the music? It may have been the same for them and if they hadn't been able to get it free, they would have done something else. I answered your question. Do you have any intention of ever answering mine? Don't think I didn't notice that you avoided answering.

On Jun 28, 2010, at 8:42 pm, Jason Robert Brown wrote:

What question of yours did I avoid answering?

If the question is "Why am I doing this?", I should think the answer is obvious: I think it's annoying and obnoxious that people think they're entitled to get the sheet music to my songs for free, and I'd like to make those people (you, for example) conscious of the immorality, illegality, and unfairness of their behavior. And your answer is sophistry, Brenna. That same scenario could take place exactly the same way if you paid for the music. And that's how that scenario is supposed to take place. You assume that because a good thing comes from an illegal act, its illegality is therefore mitigated. That's nonsense. I'm glad people want to sing my songs, and I'm glad that when other people hear them, they enjoy them - that doesn't mean I surrender my right to get paid for providing the sheet music. 


On Jun 28, 2010, at 6:05 PM, Brenna wrote:

First of all, stop calling me "Brenna." I don't think I could possibly have made it clearer that I don't go by that name nor do I like that name. I go by "Eleanor."  

Second, I'm not saying that you're not somewhat right in the way you're thinking, but you're also defiantly wrong. Would it be wrong for me to make a copy of some sheet music and give it to a close friend of mine for an audition? Of course not. In fact, it would be considered nasty of me to refuse. But to trade sheet music online is bad? This website is not even technically illegal. Since the music is never actually uploaded onto the site and is sent via email from one user to another, I'm breaking no law by participating in it. You think I don't look this stuff up? I'm careful about what I do online, as you can clearly see from the fact that I'm still iffy on your identity. I know what can happen online. I'm not going to use a website that I think could get me in trouble, just like I'm not going to assume that someone I meet online is who they claim to be.

And third, you think the same scenario could have taken place exactly the same way? Funny. Most of the teenagers I have met who are into theatre would do the free song before they would do the one for $3.99 unless they had a really good reason. It could theoretically take place the same way. The question is would it? And the answer is probably not. I never said that it was an amazing thing happening and I never said that it doesn't start with what I'm sure seems to you as a bad thing. I "assume that because a good thing comes from an illegal act, it's therefore mitigated"? Well, I have just explained that it is not illegal, so we will leave that alone. Yes. I assume that because something that good comes from something so insignificantly negative, it's therefore mitigated.


I'm going to give you three examples to explain why what you're doing is wrong, and then I'm going to stop this exchange, because arguing with teenagers is a zero-sum game, as I've learned from my experience on both ends of the argument. You insist on your right to think you know everything and do whatever you want, and anyone who corrects you or tries to educate you otherwise is the enemy; I don't wish to be the enemy, I'm just a guy trying to make a living.

First story:

A friend of mine is building a house. He drew up the plans, he chopped down all the trees, he's got it all together. He doesn't have a screwdriver. He calls me up, says, "Dude, I need a screwdriver." I happen to have a screwdriver, so I give it to him, but I say, "Hey, I need that back later today, I have some work to do." He looks incredulous. "I have to build a house, my man. I'm not going to be done in a day. And what if someone likes my house and wants me to build one for them? I'll need the screwdriver to build their house too, yo." So I suggest he get his own screwdriver. "Why can't I just use yours?" he says. I tell him he can use mine, but then I need it back, it's my screwdriver, after all. He insists that he has the right to take my screwdriver, build his house, then keep that screwdriver forever so he can build other people's houses with it. This seems unfair to me. 

The screwdriver he wants is a tool that he is using to further his own aims. I went out, I bought a screwdriver, now I should just give it away to someone? Now let's say I wrote a song- it took a lot for me to write it, and it has been my full-time job for over twenty years to make sure that the songs I write go out into the world to be heard and sung. The way I support myself and my family is through the sale of those songs, on CDs, in sheet music, in tickets. Sheet music represents almost half of my yearly income. You seem to be saying that you should be able to take that song, that screwdriver, just take it for free, and go build your career and your happiness without ever compensating me. 

Second story:

I collect first edition copies of the works of Thornton Wilder. I've been doing so for a long time, he's my favorite author in the world. A friend of mine comes over to the house, sees my collection, and says, "Wow, I've never read any of this stuff. This one looks cool." He takes down The Bridge of San Luis Rey. "Can I read this?" Sure, I say. It would be rude of me not to let him borrow my book to read, after all. You might even say it would be "nasty." Two months go by; there's a big hole on my bookshelf where The Bridge of San Luis Rey is supposed to go. I call my friend, ask him for my book back. He comes over and says, "I love this book, yo. Make me a copy!" I look at him strangely. Why would I do that? He can just go to the bookstore and get a copy of his own. "No, dude, I love THIS book, you should just make me a copy of it." But the publishing company won't be able to survive if people just make copies of the book, I say, and the Thornton Wilder estate certainly deserves its share of the income it earns when people buy the book.  He says I'm a jerk because I won't make him a copy of this genius book that I shared with him. I tell him he's a prick and he should get out of my house, and that's the last time I see him for years.

Now, Eleanor, here you might say that that's stupid, it's HARD to make a photocopy of a whole BOOK, but one SONG you can just print out from your computer. And I say to you that just because technology makes doing a bad thing easier doesn't mean it's suddenly not a bad thing. There may soon be technology whereby I can go to my local library and instantly scan and download every single book and put it on my computer for free; then I'll never have to go to the library again, and I'll have all this awesome stuff on my hard drive and it'll be MINE, because I stole it all by myself. The logical endpoint of that argument is fairly obvious to me, and I hope to you: If no one buys any of the books, then the publishing companies will stop printing them, and then the authors will have no way to make their livings as authors. Because I am an author, I tend to believe that I should be able to get paid for doing that work (and it is work, Eleanor, it's really hard work). The way I get paid is that people buy the work that I do, and I get a percentage of that money - other percentages go to the publishers, the bookstores, the theatres, the actors, the typesetters, the copyists, the musicians, the designers, the operators, even the libraries since the government takes a piece and that's how it funds everything you rely on in your everyday life. You think you're entitled to deny all of those people their rightful share of the work they do. I don't understand why you think that.

Third story:

I bought a fantastic new CD by my friend Michael Lowenstern. I then ripped that CD onto my hard drive so I can listen to it on my iPod in my car. Well, that's not FAIR, right? I should have to buy two copies?

No. There is in fact a part of the copyright law that allows exactly this; it's called the doctrine of fair use. If you've purchased or otherwise legally obtained a piece of copyrighted material and you want to make a copy of it for your own use, that's perfectly legal and allowed. Your friend Wikipedia has some useful thoughts about "fair use" and "fair dealing," in case you want to read further. Here's the beginning of the relevant section:

Copyright does not prohibit all copying or replication. In the United States, the fair use doctrine, codified by the Copyright Act of 1976 as 17 U.S.C. § 107, permits some copying and distribution without permission of the copyright holder or payment to same. The statute does not clearly define fair use, but instead gives four non-exclusive factors to consider in a fair use analysis. Those factors are: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

You can find the rest at There's also a very useful discussion of all this stuff at the University of Texas library site (Texas! of all places!), which you can read at
[NB: This link is no longer active.]

Now you're frustrated because even if you wanted to do the right thing, the ethical and legal thing, you still need a credit card to buy the sheet music and that isn't going to happen. Listen, Eleanor, I'm frustrated on your behalf. It really sucks to be a teenager. I'm not being sarcastic or ironic, I really get it. I wrote a whole show about it. But being able to steal something doesn't mean you should. If your parents really won't pony up the four bucks to buy a copy of the sheet music, then you can ask them to take you to the library and you can take out all the music you want, free, and pick the song you want to use for an audition or a talent show, and you can keep borrowing the book from the library until you're done with it or until the library demands it back. My song may not be in your library - you could ask them to get it from another library, through an interlibrary loan (this is common, standard library practice), but if you're in a time crunch, that's not practical - so you may have to just pick another song. It may not be the perfect song, but if you're a talented girl, it won't matter all that much. As long as it shows off what you can do and who you are, it will suffice because you are a teenager and the people who you are auditioning for will cut you slack on that account.

That's the end of my jeremiad, and I'd be surprised if it persuaded you in any real way, but it is the truth and it is your responsibility as a citizen, as a member of the theatrical community, and as a considerate human being to pay attention to the laws, ethics and customs that make it possible for you to do the thing you love. I'm very much impressed by how passionately you've stood your ground, and how articulate you've been in doing so, and I can't tell you how excited I am that you didn't misspell anything, not once in this entire exchange. (Well, you wrote "you're" when you meant "your" once, but I'll let it go.) But being able to argue a point doesn't make it right - lots of lawyers lose cases all the time.

I'm sorry if you still think I'm a jerk, but what I'm talking about here is not "insignificant." The entire record business is in free-fall because people no longer feel the moral responsibility to buy music; they just download it for free from the Internet, from YouTube, from their friends. When l make a cast album or a CD of my own, I do it knowing that it will never earn its money back, that I'm essentially throwing that money away so that I can put those songs out in the world. That shouldn't be the case, and I suspect in your heart you believe that too. All of us who write music for the theatre are very much concerned that the sheet music business will eventually go the same way as the record business. I'm doing my little part to keep that from happening. If you want me to talk to your parents and ask them to buy you the sheet music, just have them write me an email. You know how to find me. All best, J.


It was Georgia (Stitt) who actually inspired me to publish the blog in the first place. I was reading my exchanges with Eleanor out loud for her amusement, and she said, "This is the thing about teenagers! They just don't even know it's wrong!" Since some of those teenagers read my blog, I thought that if I posted my little story, they might re-examine their belief that nobody was harmed by their passing the music back and forth without ever legally obtaining any copies.

I didn't count on being attacked by what I now call The Pirate Lobby. You only need to glance at the comments on the original blog to get a sense of their collective hysteria in the face of my suggestion that copyright holders are entitled to income from their work. Like a mantra, they repeat Stewart Brand's dictum "Information wants to be free," and they conjure up Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig, as though either of those guys has anything remotely in common with the kind of work I do in the theatre. (I never need to hear the phrase "The genie's out of the bottle'' again.) When the New York Times asked me to write an entry for their Theater Talkback blog, I chose to respond as best I could to those comments. I was also very grateful to George Ou, who posted a blog on that handily defeated the most common rationalizations for Internet piracy. 

As for Eleanor, I did eventually hear back from her, but not immediately - it turned out that she was at camp when I posted the blog and didn't know anything about it. Anyway, she said she didn't feel annoyed or offended that I had posted her remarks, she did understand where I was "coming from," and she appreciated that I took the time to deal with her. I also heard from her mother. And her brother. (You can even read their comments on Eric Whitacre's blog about the fracas.) And I have heard from many very wonderfully kind and supportive people who pledged to do what they could, even if only in their own houses, to stop the rampant illegal and unpaid use of intellectual property, sheet music being only one example.