Disclaimer – This page is not intended to offer legal advice. If you have specific questions regarding copyright laws, you should contact a legal professional.
Sheet music is the result of collaboration between the composer/arranger, the publisher, and the music retailer. Whenever printed music is copied, these three entities are robbed. It is no coincidence that the number of music publishers has decreased since the creation of the copy machine. Copyright infringement can also lead to severe criminal charges and penalties depending on the extent of the violation. For these reasons, music teachers can no longer plead ignorance to copyright laws. Thankfully, “fair use” guidelines allow music teachers some special provisions for using copyrighted material for educational purposes.
Copyrighted Music vs. Music in the Public Domain
- Music in the public domain is not subject to copyright laws. Anybody can photocopy, arrange/transcribe, perform, and record music in the public domain.
- Determining if a song is copyrighted can be difficult. A general rule of thumb is that if the song was created prior to 1923, it is in the public domain. Otherwise, it is probably copyrighted.
- These sites can help determine if a song is in the public domain or if it is protected by copyright:
Is It Protected by Copyright? (Digital Copyright Slider)The Copyright CalculatorCopyright Duration CalculatorCopyright Term and the Public Domain in the U.S. (PDF)When U.S. Works Pass Into the Public DomainCopyright Duration
- Here are sites that contain music that is in the public domain:
Photocopying Copyrighted Music
- If you have illegally photocopied music in your music library, get rid of it. It’s time to get back on the right side of the law.
- When choosing music for your group to perform–if you don’t want to spend money for additional copies–make sure that you have enough copies for everyone in the group. No one may make photocopies just to avoid purchasing additional music.
- If you need additional copies of music for your students, you must purchase them or get permission from the copyright owner (usually the publisher) to photocopy the music. Either way you will have to pay money for the copyrighted work.
- No one may photocopy copyrighted music in order to create a compilation or anthology for students. Additionally, if you want to perform one song out of a collection, you cannot just copy that song.
- Contrary to popular belief, copyrighted music may not be photocopied for an accompanist, a judge, a jury panel, or any other need arising from music festival, contest, or juries.
- If the music is out-of-print, you still have to get permission from the copyright owner (usually the publisher) to photocopy the music.
- If you don’t know who the copyright owner is, you still can’t photocopy the music. These sites might be helpful in tracking down the copyright owner:
- Music teachers may make emergency copies for an imminent performance, if for some reason the original copies cannot be found. Purchased replacements must be substituted as soon as possible.
- Music teachers may photocopy copyrighted music for academic purposes, as long as they don’t copy the work in its entirety (no more than 10% of the original) and only make one copy per student.
- To photocopy a copyrighted piece of music, you must obtain permission. Here are some helpful resources:
- Remember – even legally photocopied music must display the copyright information.
Arranging & Transcribing Copyrighted Music
- If the work is in the public domain, you may arrange or transcribe the work freely because no one owns the copyright.
- No one many alter (arrange or transcribe) a copyrighted work without permission from the copyright owners. Only the copyright owners have rights to derivative works.
- Music teachers may simplify or edit a legally obtained copy of music as long as it does not distort the fundamental character of the work.
- To arrange/transcribe a copyrighted piece of music, you must obtain permission. Here are the forms:
Use the links in the “Photocopying Copyrighted Music” section (above) to identify the publisher or copyright owner.Request for Permission to Arrange (PDF)Request for Permission to Arrange (Online Submission Form)
Performing Copyrighted Music
- The original composer/arranger of a copyrighted work has the right to the first performance of the work.
- Anyone performing copyrighted music for profit must obtain permission from the copyright owners in advance.
- Music teachers may perform copyrighted music for educational purposes as long as the performance is free. If the performance is not free, all proceeds must go to the school or charity.
Recording Performances of Copyrighted Music
- Making an audio recording of a copyrighted song for CD or cassette requires a special recording license known as a mechanical license. This is not the same as getting permission to photocopy sheet music because a sound recording is considered a derivative work.
- To complicate the matter, a synchronization license is required whenever you want to synchronize audio and video (e.g. videotaping a concert). Synchronization licenses can only be obtained from the music publisher.
- Music teachers may record student and group performances of copyrighted music for evaluation or rehearsal purposes. Only one copy may be made and retained by the school or teacher.
- Music teachers must obtain a mechanical or synchronization license in order to make multiple copies of a student or group performance of a copyrighted song.
- Music teachers may not make their own recordings of copyrighted music for students to practice with at home without obtaining a mechanical or synchronization license.
- Contrary to popular belief, recordings of performances by students cannot be duplicated or distributed for a price, donation, or even for free.
- The Harry Fox Agency can grant mechanical licenses for most songs. Contact the music publisher directly if the Harry Fox Agency doesn’t have the rights to the song.
- Here are some resources to obtain a mechanical license:
- Sound recordings are recordings of music created by other performers.
- Sound recordings bring another party into the copyright mix — the performer.
- In order to duplicate an audio recording, permission must be obtained from both the composer/arranger of the original work (usually through the publisher) and from the performer (usually through a performing organization such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC).
- Music teachers may make one copy of a sound recording for educational purposes such as aural or listening exercises.
- Photocopying a musical work is protected by copyright and requires permission from the copyright owner (usually the publisher). If there is no copyright owner, the work is in the public domain.
- Arranging or transcribing a copyrighted song is protected by copyright because it is considered a derivative work. Music teachers may, however, simplify or edit legal copies of copyrighted songs as long as they don’t distort the fundamental character of the work.
- Performing a musical work is also protected by copyright and requires permission from the copyright owner (usually the publisher). Music teachers, however, may perform copyrighted music as long as it is for free.
- Making an audio recording of a musical work is considered a derivative work and is also protected by copyright. Music teachers may make one audio recording of student performances for educational purposes. Making multiple audio recordings, however, requires a mechanical license which may be obtained from the Harry Fox Agency.
- Making multiple video recordings of a musical work is also protected by copyright but requires a synchronization license (synchronizing audio and video). Synchronization licenses can only be obtained from the copyright owner (the publisher). Music teachers may make one video recording of student performances for educational purposes.
- Someone else’s recording of a work (a sound recording) is protected by copyright, and in addition to obtaining permission from the composer/arranger, permission must be obtained from the performer to duplicate the sound recording (see ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC). Music teachers may, however, make one copy of a sound recording for use in listening exercises.
Useful Copyright Websites for Music Educators
- “I Made It!” A Free Classroom Resource for Understanding Copyright
- The National Association for Music Education: Copyright Center
- The Music Publishers’ Association: Copyright Resource Center
- The National Music Publishers’ Association: General Copyright
- The Copyright Monster and Music Educators
- Music Copyright Law in the USA
- Music Library Association Copyright Guide
- Copyright Website
- The United States Copyright Office
- Copyright and Fair Use Guidelines for Teachers (PDF)
- Fair Use Checklist (PDF)
- Fair Use Chart for Teachers