Image via Flickr
I learned piano at age 10 by watching my Grandmother slowly play Für Elise in small fragments. She would play a phrase which I would then mimick on next octave. I'm a visual learner, and was able to play the whole piece at the end of a week. A lot of beginning piano students learn visually, and even if they aren't copying their grandma's demonstrations, I'd bet a lot are working with a setup like the one pictured above. If they are, though, one man claims they're infringing on his copyright.
Yes, Shawn Cheek, whose YouTube ID is webpianoteacher2, has been called out by redditors and YouTubers for claiming he owns the copyright to the teaching method of writing out notes in letters above the keys. He has apparently convinced Mark de Heide, the 23-year-old creator of PGN Piano lessons, to take down all of his videos that display the letters of notes above the keyboard (e.g. a visual display of "C, D, E, C," for frere jacques). Mark took the bait, and stated in a video he's removed all of his YouTube lesson videos that contain the fundamental piano practice technique. He also worried about YouTube taking action over the lessons he recording teaching pop hits.
It's as if Rand McNally wanted to sue for royalties on the 5-pointed star. Of course there are design elements and graphic details that can be protected by patent and trademark law. But to protect content against a common teaching method–for educational purposes–that's been part of the piano lexicon for centuries? It seemed outrageous, so I reached out to Mark for more info. Our direct messaging ensued over twitter thusly:
MOTHERBOARD: Hi Mark, I just have a couple of questions.
Mark de Heide: Well we are nearly going to bed right now.. It's been a pretty rough week as you can imagine..
I can, I can, I'm sorry to hear. Just wanted to know, did you receive communication about the Copyright issue from YouTube, or did you receive notification from the user himself?
From the other teacher, not from YouTube.
I'm also wondering which user it is that is claiming they own this 'idea.'
You can watch the two videos on my channel too which explain a lot.
I saw them, but you don't say whom it is.
You can find that too in the comments, we agreed to not name each other.
There are many people on YouTube with this method of teaching.
Yes a lot of people teach piano, not all of them use letters above the piano..
Yes but many of them use letters above the piano.
Yeah some do.
You know you aren't obligated by any law to quit what you're doing. I'm curious as to why you've agreed.
Well, I live in the Netherlands.. I don't know much about US law..
This is as if Rosetta Stone tried to copyright the flash card
The other teacher said I was infringing his rights and he got a lawyer
Has he given or offered you money to remove your videos?
He can't possibly claim to own the rights to a method of teaching that dates back 100's of years.
I know it is a vague claim.. He does own a copyright on his method, at least that's what he says.
I'd ask to see documentation of his protected copyright before agreeing to do what you've done.
Yeah I know, some other people did that for me and they discovered he does have a copyright filed in 2007.
It's not a vague claim, it's really wacky, it's like being told you can't use a chalkboard to teach language.
Yeah I think so too.. However I don't have the means to defend myself in court all the way in the states.
So, I chased down the comments, which got me Shawn's name, and explained this copyright Mark was talking about from 2007:
Nothing like a little street justice on a YouTube comment board. Oh, and the abundancy of legal advice:
I emailed Shawn Cheek yesterday asking him to explain the issue, but have yet to hear back from him. If it's true that Cheek intimidated de Heide into giving up his livelihood—the affable Dutch pianist had millions of views across his videos—then this is truly an outrage.
I hate to admit it, but cynic in me wonders if de Heide is capitalizing on the injustice by soliciting online donations. I guess I've seen a lot of hustlers ask for money over a webcam in my day, so it's hard to say my radar isn't fuzzing up a bit. But all doubt aside, how awful is this? And why hasn't Shawn Cheek answered me? Let's just assume that the sweet Dutch kid has truly been threatened with legal remedies. If the argument could hold sand–which there's no way in hell it could–please, put the guys who make EZ-piano stickers in the jury.