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Open-source dev and critic of Beijing claims Audacity owner Muse threatened him with deportation to China in row over copyright

'Who knows how he may be received...'

Audacity's new owner Muse Group has been accused of threatening to land a developer in legal hot water, a move that could result in the programmer being forced to return to China to face a government of which he has been a vocal critic.

The developer in question, Wenzheng Tang, has expressed anti-China sentiments on his GitHub profile alongside a flag of Taiwan. He confirmed to The Register he is a Chinese national. We asked Tang for his approval to report on this debate, out of concern for his safety should he be deported from Canada, where he currently resides, as a result of any legal complaints brought against him.

Tang explicitly acknowledged that risk. "If I am deported back to mainland China, I would at least be jailed," he said in an email that may well understate the consequences of public political opposition to the Chinese government. Nonetheless, he sees value in publicity as a form of defense.

"I would rather put myself in the center of public interest," he explained. "Because of the Streisand effect, I believe a story would indeed help me rather than harm me."

Playing a bad tune

Muse Group hit the headlines in May this year with its acquisition of the Audacity audio-editing project. Muse pledged the software would continue to be free and open source, then added controversial telemetry phoning home to Google and Yandex-hosted servers in Russia and the US. This was later reversed, and the company pointed out it was disabled by default.

The business's missteps continued with a change to Audacity's privacy agreement, which required users of the software to be over the age of 13, an apparent breach of obligations in the GNU General Public Licence under which the Audacity project is published. Throw in a little trolling by 4chan over the naming of an Audacity fork, and it's fair to say tempers have been running high.

The company's latest brouhaha started with an email from October last year to Tang, developer of LibreScore, an open-source serverless alternative to Muse Group's own Musescore service for music score distribution. The private message, signed by Musescore developer Max Chistyakov and publicly released by Tang in a GitHub issue, focused on a separate though related project: musescore-downloader, an open-source tool which promises the user the ability to "download sheet music [...] from for free, no login or Musescore Pro required."

Musescore Pro being the paid-for version of Musescore.

In the email, Chistyakov alleged Tang "illegaly [sic] use[d] our private API with licensed music content," and threatened hefty repercussions if the LibreScore repository was not taken down. "I will have to transfer information about you to lawyers who will cooperate with and [the] Chinese government to physically find you and stop the illegal use of licensed content," Chistyakov warned.

For Tang, that could be no small threat. While situated outside mainland China, Tang has been a vocal critic of Beijing, going so far as to write, "To Overthrow the Chinese Communist Dictatorship. 五千年专制到此可告一段落﹐个人崇拜从今可以休矣," in his GitHub biography. The latter can be translated as "the five-thousand-year dictatorship can come to an end here, and the cult of personality can cease now."

China is not known for its kind treatment of critics, to put it mildly, and in case the implications of Chistyakov's comment were unclear, Muse Group's head of strategy, Daniel Ray, chimed in with more in a since-edited comment posted to GitHub late yesterday following continued discussion on the topic: "As a guest in his current country, [Tang's] residency status is predicated on a number of conditions, one of which is not violating the law.

"If found in violation of laws, residency may be revoked and he may be deported to his home country. This becomes even further complicated given another repo of his – 'Fuck 学习强国', which is highly critical of the Chinese government. Were he deported to China, who knows how he may be received."

Ray positioned his comments to a developer he described as "young, clearly bright, but very naive," who "risk[ed] ruining [his] entire life so a kid can download your illegal bootleg of the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' theme for oboe," as being altruistic.

"I'm writing this entire post here not as a representative of any company or entity," Ray claimed, "but just human-to-human to strongly encourage you to remove both repositories and move on with your life."

Comments in the GitHub issue, however, show that it has been taken as anything but. One user responded to the post with an image of The Godfather, captioned "that would be a shame if something happened"; others confirmed they had reported the post to GitHub for abuse; still more pointed out Ray and Muse Group have accused Tang of infringing copyrights they do not themselves hold, and that any such legal action would need to come from the actual rightsholders.

Ray edited the comment to remove the apparent threat, though neither addressed complaints nor apologized for his message. "It seems the internet is fed on outrage," he wrote in the edited version, "and must interpret every intent as malicious."

The Register corresponded with both Wenzheng Tang and Daniel Ray about the fracas.

"Daniel Ray's post, of course, is not accurate, and instead it's a public death-threat," said Tang. "How could a person representing the company care about the immigration status and the well-being of their top enemy? They even threatened me to send the police directly to my home and physically catch me."

Definitely not a threat

Asked to explain the situation, Ray from Muse Group cited these "key facts":

  • was unlicensed when it was acquired.
  • Prior to acquisition there was an API for third-party developers.
  • The API was discontinued as condition of major publishers in becoming licensed.
  • All developers using the API were informed that it was discontinued.
  • Modified API was used for MuseScore App, but public access closed.
  • Tang, known as Xmader on GitHub, reverse engineered API modifications for the app and continued to use it even after being notified it was discontinued.
  • Xmader ignored notice and continued to make workarounds to API and used it to make browser extensions to circumvent copyright protection.
  • Xmader also scraped all the files for notated content from the site and uploaded them to IPFS.
  • Using this circumvention tool, Xmader illegally downloaded and currently distributes hundreds of thousands of copyrighted works via IPFS and the Musescore-dataset repo.

Ray told The Register that he did not intend his communication to be interpreted as a threat.

"The issue here is that in learning more about who Xmader actually was, I could not in good conscience push forward with the take down process that requires filing a legal complaint against him given the potential cascading effects," he explained.

"He is a Chinese national, resident in another country, and who has stirred some controversy recently with Chinese officials due to another tool he created that would modify government issued software for education.

I could not in good conscience push forward with the take down process that requires filing a legal complaint against him given the potential cascading effects

"As a guest in another country myself, I do understand the strict requirements to demonstrate that I have not violated any laws as a condition to extend my visa or resident permit. I have been through this many, many times and have even had to show that I do not have even so much as a traffic violation.

"I am personally very sympathetic to this situation and tried to appeal to the young man to simply remove the repository as it was not likely worth any of the potential unintended consequences that would result in demonstrating that his actions may have been in violation of law. As he is quite young and in a new country with different practices and laws, I did not believe he would have really been fully aware of potential consequences.

"This communication of potential risk was, with advice to simply take down infringing content was, unfortunately, misinterpreted as a threat."

Tang disputed that he did anything wrong, but did not address whether some of the musical scores being distributed are copyrighted.

"My project has existed long before the API closure, and the project was initially designed to eliminate the need of an account to download a score, utilizing the API," he said. "I believe my project was primarily the reason for the API closure, and many developers were not informed, asking why the API was closed."

"MuseScore illegally paywalled all of the downloads, not because they are protected by copyright laws, but because they want to monetize the contents on their platform after the acquisition," he elaborated. "In contrast, the musicians cannot receive a penny for their work. MuseScore does not own any of the 'copyrighted' work, and indeed many of the work are under public domain or creative commons. Therefore, they cannot fill any DMCA requests on anyone else's behalf."

DMCA difficulties claimed

Ray characterized the difficulty with a DMCA takedown as a matter of volume rather than rights.

"I initiated the process with GitHub, but they will not take any action to remove the repository unless we file an actual legal complaint in a court of law," said Ray. "The reason for this is the volume of works involved."

The dataset being distributed contains a million works, he explained.

"The normal GitHub DMCA process requires that you must file an DMCA request for each individual copyrighted work," said Ray. "Given the sheer volume of works, this is impossible."

According to Ray, the scores distributed to IPFS consisted of: 1) a mix of public domain scores that had been uploaded to; 2) original works uploaded to by composers, under the Terms of Service; and 3) copyrighted works licensed according to agreements with music publishers that were uploaded to by users, under the Terms of Service.

Ray told us that at least for those works in the third category, Muse Group may act as an agent where that's been specified by the licensing agreement. He declined, however, to clarify whether such arrangements are in place. "Unfortunately, I am not able to further elaborate on any specific terms or conditions of any licensing agreements," he said.

Muse Group also has limited distribution rights, conferred through its Terms of Service, for works under category two but it's not clear whether that extends to taking legal action on behalf of composers.

Muse Group did undertake related enforcement action by asking Google to remove the musescore-downloader Chrome extension. "It was an extension designed to circumvent the means of limiting access to copyrighted materials and removal was requested in accordance with Google policy," said Ray.

But in the absence of valid DMCA takedowns for the disputed content, getting GitHub to remove the repository will take legal action.

"As taking the step of legal action could potentially have unintended consequences, given the personal circumstances of the individual infringing, I personally struggled with this," said Ray. "At the same time, we are legally obligated to enforce any infringements as a condition of our licensing agreements or risk losing them.

"Trying to resolve this situation by simply informing of the potential consequences of continuing to infringe and forcing us to take legal action were interpreted as a threat." ®

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