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Music Copyright

Copyright as applied to Music


This page is intended as a contribution to a debate on copyright, and not a full assertion of legal facts. Although I know more than the average person about copyright, I am not a lawyer.

I think that genuine bona fide copyright should be respected. However there are cases where people may claim copyright with only dubious entitlement for various reasons. Some people find it safer to claim copyright on something to which they are not entitled, or to be vague about exactly which part of the work they are claiming copyright on. I would advocate at least challenging such copyright claims (by defying them).

Copyright in general

The scope of copyright

Copyright applies to artistic and creative work, and not to mere data or something produced merely by some machine or automatic process. For example taking a photocopy of a document will not give you any copyright rights. Taking a photocopy is a mechanistic process which involves no artistic judgement.

The method of working is all-important

The question of whether you are breaking the copyright of another work depends on the method you use, and not on what you end up with. Consider for example map making. The map must depict what is really there, so it is likely that you will end up with a map similar to other maps of the same area. Provided your method was entirely independently done it is OK.

Something similar will happen with sheet music. If you hear a tune, and write out some sheet music for it, that sheet music might end up looking similar to sheet music produced by others.

Copyright is automatic

Copyright is automatic. There is no need to register a copyright but in practice it is important to have some proof of your entitlement to the copyright which might be used in the case of a dispute.

The duration of copyright

Typically copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. This was increased from 50 years quite recently. There may be variations between USA and Europe, and it may depend on the type of material which the copyright applies to. In any case it will be at least 50 years after the work is created. Some people believe that this is too long.

Music Copyright


Original compositions are copyright and the copyright extends to any manifestation of that music, i.e. printed sheet music, computer files which depict the music, and sound recordings of the music. This applies to both music and lyrics.

Sheet music

It is generally regarded as a breach of copyright to take a photocopy from a published music book. Even if the tune itself is traditional, and free of copyright, the printed sheet music is considered to be a form or artwork, and so copyright. There may be exceptions where the published book contains exact copies of sheet music from an older source which is free from copyright. Books may contain a general statement of copyright for the whole book, but that might not apply to everything in the book.

Sound recording

Consider a comparison with photography. In the latter case the copyright is owned by the photographer. If the photograph is of a person, however important, that person has no copyright rights over the photograph. Thus you can take a photograph of a celebrity and print it on T shirts and sell them. The celebrity has no rights over this. The position of sound recording is similar. However unfair it may seem, the sound recordist is the owner of the copyright of a sound recording, not the performer.

The only thing the performer can do is to refuse to perform when he is being recorded but he might have to agree this with the management of the venue.

Dubious Copyright Claims

There are numerous cases where people claim copyright where their entitlement is questionable. One example is in a sheet music book which contains facsimiles of work which is old and so not copyright. There will usually be a copyright statement at the start of the book, and indeed some material in the book will indeed be copyright, but the statement may not make it clear that there is other material in the book which is not.

A similar thing can occur with a CD of historic recordings which are not copyright. The record company might claim copyright simply on the order in which the tracks appear. I think that to claim copyright simply on a contents list is questionable. This site contains a number of contents lists of sheet music books. Where practical I have asked permission to include the list as a matter of courtesy, but it may not be necessary. It may depend on the method used to create the list. Scanning the original contents list from the book may be a breach of copyright, whereas writing out the list from observation of the contents may not.

I would contend that mere data should not be subject to copyright. There was a case where British Telecom tried to prevent others from using the contents of the telephone directory. Similarly the BBC has tried to prevent publication of television schedules.

Sometimes people publishing non-copyright material may intentionally alter it slightly, for example by adding a logo to a picture, and then claim copyright on the whole picture.


It is the method of creating the work which determines whether copyright is being breached. Sometimes it is impossible to know how the end product was achieved. Examples might be in creating a Midi file or sheet music in the form of a GIF file. In the case of a Midi file it may be impossible to tell whether the file was newly created from first principles, or whether it was achieved by modifying another (copyright) midi file. In the case of GIF files, software exists which can create a GIF file from an ABC file for example.

There is a sort of poetic justice here, because if someone tries to claim copyright on something which is easy to do, and has little artistic merit, it will be easy for another to legitimately repeat the work independently and end up with exactly the same thing.

In the end, whether enforcement of copyright is worthwhile will depend on the monetary value of the material.

Protecting Copyright

The traditional way of protecting one's own copyright is to send it in a secure self-addressed envelope and leave it unopened. However there are other ways.

Sometimes it is possible to apply some sort of one-way process to an original work in such a way that the output of the process can safely be published. Posession of the unprocessed version will prove the authorship of the published version. A simple example is to crop a photograph, or to publish it in a reduced size or quality. In this case it is impossible for another person to replicate the original.

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