Skip to Main Content

Music Copyright Guide

by Casey Burgess

Frequently Asked Questions

1. I need a copy of a score for a performance. The music is over 100 years old. Can I just photocopy it?

Not necessarily. Just because a piece of music is in the public domain, doesn't mean that all scores are out of copyright. Critical editions, for example, are copyrighted by the people who edited them and added commentary. It's always better to purchase a score yourself or have the library purchase a copy if they don't have it and use that.

2. I'm a student. Isn't everything I do for academic purposes and therefore protected by fair use?

Again, not necessarily. As a student, many of the things you do are for academic purposes only, but fair use is much more complicated and involves several other factors. Check out the "Fair Use" tab on the left for more information.

3. Is copyright different from trademark or patent?

Yes! These three things are all under the overarching umbrella of intellectual property, but copyright is protecting the expression of ideas while trademarks protect brands and patents protect processes. For more information, see the "About Copyright" tab on the left.

4. How do I know if something is in copyright?

It depends on the country, but anything older than 120 years is likely in the public domain. In order to know for sure, you have to look at where the item was published and when. When you cross-reference this with the law of the publishing country (and do a bit of math), it should give you an idea of when the copyright expired or will expire. For more information, see the "Duration of Copyright" tab on the left.

5. Are arrangements or covers of music copyright infringement?

Only if you don't ask for permission! While you are using the music and lyrics of a song, covers and arrangements are considered derivative works. Since authors are the only ones who can make derivatives or allow others to make derivatives, so you have to be licensed. An important note about arrangements is that the changes made to the original must be minimal, so that they properly reflect the original work. It's also important that you properly state that this is an arrangement and who the original song belongs to. Once the arrangement or cover has been put down to paper, the arranger owns the copyright on the parts they created, but not what they took from the original composition. For more information, see the "For Composers" tab on the left.

6. If I use something and it's a fair use, do I even need to cite the source?

Yes! Citing your source is always important, regardless of whether or not you need a license! If you don't cite your source, you're implying that this is your work, rather than someone else's. Plagiarism in school gets you a bad grade and potentially a suspension, but it can cost you money, too! Lawyers will not go easy on you just because you're a student.

7. I want to perform this piece but it's in copyright. Can I not perform it?

You can still perform this piece! Just because something is in copyright doesn't mean you can use it. It's similar to renting a car: just because it's not your car, doesn't mean you can't drive it. You just have to pay a fee and sign a contract. The same goes for music. You have to get a license for the music, which will cost some money. See the "Music Licensing" tab under the "For Performers" tab on the left for more information!

8. How much will a license cost?

It depends. The best way to find out is to get a quote. It's also important to make sure you're getting the right license. See the "Music Licensing" tab under the "For Performers" tab on the left to learn more about the different licenses and where to get quotes from.

9. How do I get a copyright?

Lucky for you, copyright is automatic! If your piece falls under the requirements of a copyrightable work, you automatically own the copyright except in special circumstances. You can register your copyright for extra protection in case someone uses your work and you want to sue, but it isn't necessary otherwise. See the tab "For Composers" for more information about this.

10. Do I have rights as a performer?

Yes! You can control whether or not your performance is recorded and how that recording is used. The "For Performers" tab has more information about this. As a student at IU, you waived your performance rights so that IU could publish its performances, but all other performances you have control over.

11. You keep saying fair use, but what is fair use?

Fair Use is the idea that copyrightable works can be used for free without a license in certain special circumstances. It's a debatable concept that is ultimately up to judges to decide what it is or is not. When in doubt, talk to a lawyer about it. For a more in-depth description of fair use, see the "Fair Use" tab on the left. Here is a comical example of fair use that also describes fair use created by Eric Fadden at Bucknell University. It's licensed under a Creative Commons license, which means it's free to use and download, per his website