There are two main situations in writing music where composers must be aware of copyright issues. The first is in choosing words to set to music, the second is in protecting your copyright ownership of the finished work. Copyright law is a very complex issue and this text should not be taken as legal advice – it is simply a primer on issues to be aware of. Much of the information below is rooted in U.S. law, the further reading at the end of this section can direct you to resources on international copyright.
Some important terminology before we move into specific scenarios:
“Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” [from the US Copyright Office website, https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html, retrieved 5/8/2020]
In order for copyright protections to exist for literary, artistic or musical material, the work must be fixed into a tangible, stable and concrete form. Handwriting words in a notebook, typing words into a document, publishing them online, etc. all constitute fixed forms, the words have been captured in a concrete way. Speaking words out loud to another person without recording in some format is not considered fixed form.
Copyright Terms and the public domain
Works that are in the public domain are works that are not protected by copyright, they are free for the public to use in any manner. The most recent changes to U.S. Copyright law have meant that each year, more works enter into the public domain.
- As of this writing in May 2020, works that were first published in the U.S. prior to 1925 are most likely in the public domain. (There are exceptions to this for some of the factors included below.)
- A number of different regulations have been imposed on works first published in the U.S. between 1925 and 1989, meaning they may or may not be in the public domain depending on whether copyright was officially registered and whether the works were first published with notice. It is safest to assume that works within this timeframe are under copyright unless you can confirm otherwise. (The Cornell university resource at the end of this section can be helpful in confirming whether the works are currently in the public domain.)
- For works written after 1977 that were first published after 1989, the copyright extends 70 years after the death of author. For works written before 1978 which were first published after 1989, the copyright term is either 70 years after the death of the author or 31 December 2047 (whichever comes later).
- For works written after 2002, the copyright term is 70 years after the death of the author.
- Cornell University maintains an excellent and concise resource on Copyright Terms and the public domain in the US. It includes additional information about copyright protections overseas. It can be accessed here: https://copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain
1) The first likely situation where you will need to be familiar with copyright is in getting permission to set text in a musical work, for example for chorus or art song.
There are numerous scenarios where you might need to request copyright permission to set the words. Here are a few common ones:
Scenario a) You write your own original words to set to music. These words are not currently published anywhere.
You do not need specific permission to set these words.
N.B. If your words are currently published (for example in a book of poetry, where typically the publisher owns the copyright), you will need to request permission as detailed in b) below.
Scenario b) You use a text that is currently under copyright:
You will need to get permission from the copyright holder, in writing, before you can set these words. Please note that the author of the words may not be the copyright holder. If the words have been published through a traditional publisher, they typically will hold the copyright, and you will need their permission instead of the poet’s. If the poet is dead, their copyright may be held by an estate, whose permission you will need in that case.
Generally speaking, a good place to start is by requesting permissions from the publisher, and asking them for a list of any additional interested parties that need to sign off on your request. You may be asked to either pay a fee up front for use of the words, or to split any profit generated from sales/royalties/etc. of the resulting musical work.
Further reading: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/before-you-set-those-words-to-music/
[Below is a sample template you can adapt to request permission as needed]
Dear (Copyright owner),
I am a composer of concert music and am seeking permission to set the work of (writer’s name) to music. The specific text(s) I would like to use are:
(Title) (Which book it is published in) (page number(s))
(repeat for each additional text) (Title) (Which book it is published in) (page number(s))
I am also seeking permission:
- to have the text printed in a public program
- to have the resulting musical work performed publicly indefinitely
- to have the resulting musical work video and audio recorded and used for social media and marketing purposes
- to have the resulting musical work recorded and distributed commercially
- to have the resulting musical work published and made available for sale/rental
- (Any other specific permissions that are important to the future life of the work beyond initial performance)
(Anything personal you would like to add. This could include why you want to use these particular texts, a link to samples of other texts you have set, information about any larger projects the work will be connected to, and a polite thank you.)
[Sign off including your contact information and website]
Scenario c) You use a text that is in the public domain.
You do not need permission to set these words.
Scenario d) You use a foreign-language text that is in the public domain, but the translation falls under current copyright protection.
You will need to request permission to set the translation from the text translator (and their publisher, if this translation appears in print.)
Other possible circumstances that may be less clear:
Scenario e) Spoken quotes.
If a public personality says something in an interview or in a public speech, the copyright issue seems to be much more ambiguous. In a very general sense, spoken words (speech, interviews) are treated as “ideas”, meaning that copyright law does not extend to them. However, if the speaker set the words in a “fixed form” (even so far as writing out a speech for their own use) the words are now under copyright protection and you need permission to use them.
2) The second circumstance in which you will need to be aware of copyright is in protecting your ownership of the completed work.
Whether or not your music contains words, by putting your musical work in a fixed form (for example, a score or recording), the work is entitled to copyright protection. (While many composers choose to include a copyright logo with their published works as a reminder of the ownership, in actual fact this is not necessary – once the work is fixed, it is automatically copyrighted.)
This means that you (as the creator and copyright owner) hold the exclusive rights to:
- Authorize reproduction of that work on a record/cd/streaming platform, (aka Reproduction right)
- Authorize issue of licenses that enable a record company to reproduce and distribute recordings of your work. (aka Mechanical license)
- Issue license for a work to be synchronized with visual media (used in a film/commercial/etc) (aka Synchronization license)
- Authorize public performance of the work. (aka Performing right)
Two points to note, however:
1) If you publish the work through a traditional publishing contract, your copyright may pass to the publisher. Read your contract carefully and consult with an attorney if needed.
2) Even though you own copyright over the work, if you record a performance with other performers, each of them owns the copyright to their own performances. This means it is essential to request permission from each performer before posting recordings online or in any other format.
Protecting yourself from potential copyright infringement
While technically your ownership of copyright is official the moment your work enters fixed form, there may be circumstances in which you want extra protections from potential copyright infringement. The proper way to do this is by registering your work(s) with the U.S. Copyright office, which you can do for a small fee as detailed here https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ56a.pdf and here https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ50.pdf
By registering your works in this way, the US Copyright office holds a copy of your work, which can be used to prove your ownership in court should any question of infringement arise.
While in the past it has been common practice to mail yourself a copy of completed works as a less expensive form of establishing copyright ownership, the US copyright office does not endorse this practice, and states that “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.” https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what
Similarly, although you may maintain timestamped copies of your works in your personal records (or email them to yourself so you have records with timestamps from the email server), while this does provide some limited evidence towards copyright ownership, the date of creation listed on a federal registration certificate is the strongest evidence a court will consider.
Further sources of information on music and copyright:
The US Copyright Office: https://www.copyright.gov/
Cornell University Copyright Information Center: https://copyright.cornell.edu/