I'm not an expert on this subject and I'm not a lawyer either.
Since I needed this kind of information when I started writing
music, I researched the subject enough to get a good overview of
it. Now I want to share it with you all since as a user of music
software, you are all directly concerned by the copyright laws.
The information given here is taken from many different sources.
These are very basic and very general rules that every one involved
in music should be aware of. In case of doubt or litigation, you
should seek professional advice from a lawyer who specialises in
the field of entertainment law and also refer to the relevant laws
of your country.
In this text, the words "generally", "usually" and other similar
words are used a lot. They mean that in a majority of cases or
countries, things work this way or in a very similar way. There
could be differences, often minor ones, but sometimes major ones
What is copyright?
Copyright essentially deals with the reproduction of a work: the
publication, the reproduction, public broadcast, translation, etc.
Generally, this right belongs to the author of the work and he and
only he can give permission to reproduce the work, to translate it,
to broadcast it, to make adaptations, etc.
What does this right apply to?
To any original work, be it literature, drama, music or art in
general. It includes books, musical works, sculptures, paintings,
photography, films, plays, television and radio broadcasts,
computer programs, sound recordings (records, cassettes), etc.
Musical arrangements generally fall under the copyright laws. If
the work is recent, you must first obtain permission from the
author to arrange the work. The same rule applies if you want to
translate a song, you must first obtain permission to translate the
song and the translation will itself be covered by the copyright
The majority of classical works do not fall under the copyright
laws, except for the most recent works (such as those of Ravel for
instance). So, classical works can generally be reproduced,
broadcast, arranged, etc. without asking permission and without
having to pay royalties.
How can I get the copyright for my works?
As soon as a work exists, the copyright on it exists automatically.
Therefore, there is nothing special to do to get it. However, even
if there is nothing special to do to get the copyright on a work
that you created, you are strongly advised to take some actions in
order to be able to prove it should the necessity arise.
What actions need to be taken in order to establish proof of
ownership of copyright?
There may be an organisation in your country with whom you can
register your work. Doing so usually costs something, not much but
there are fees to pay. The issued certificate can be used in court
to establish your rights should the occasion arise. Generally, the
burden of proof falls on the party that initiates the legal
It is a wise move, and even mandatory in some countries, to
indicate on all your works that they are copyrighted by using the
universal symbol " © " followed by your name and the year of
first publication. This serves as an indication to everyone that
this work is protected under the copyright laws.
Finally, you are also well advised to take other actions in order
to be able to better establish proof of ownership on your works in
case you should one day have to prove it in court. In the case of
music, print your scores or record your works on CD or cassette,
place them in an envelope that you will send to yourself by
registered mail. When you receive the envelope, make sure you don't
open it!. Keep it sealed in a secure place. Should you ever have to
prove that you are the owner of the copyright, you will take the
sealed envelope to the court. The judge will open it and verify the
postmark. This will be considered the date the works were created.
This is known as "poor man's copyright". Be warned that in some
countries it may not be enough to establish proof.
How long does my copyright last?
Generally, we can say that a work is protected for an average of
about 75 years. After that period, the work enters the public
domain, unless the copyright is renewed in which case the work
remains protected. For example, in Canada, unless otherwise
specified, a work is protected for the whole life of the author and
for a further 50 years after his death.
Is the copyright I own in my country valid in other
Generally, yes if that other country has signed the Universal
Convention on Copyrights, which is the case for most countries in
What constitutes a violation of copyright?
It is the non authorised use in any way of a protected work. It is
down to the owner of copyright to see that his rights are
respected. He may do so personally or through an organisation
acting on his behalf. Plagiary is a form of violation of
The use, without permission, of protected works in the form of
musical files such as MIDI, MP3 or others over the Internet and the
use of lyrics of protected songs in the same way, whether it be for
free or for a fee is a violation of copyright. It should be noted
that the great majority of sites that feature MIDI, MP3 or lyrics
of songs of well known and protected works are in violation of
copyright laws and their operation illegal.
To operate within the law, these sites must, beforehand, obtain a
licence of use from each and every one concerned (authors,
composers, performers, record companies, editors, performing rights
organisations, etc.). We know that most if not all don't bother to
do this, they just wait to be sued.
To compensate for such losses, some countries impose additional
taxes on the sale of blank CD's for instance (since they are
generally used to burn illegal copies of protected works for which
the royalties were not collected; whether it is for personal use or
not doesn't matter, the works were acquired illegally from illegal
However, some sites do offer MP3, MIDI or MUS files that are legal
since the owner of the site wrote the works that appear on his
site. These sites do not violate any copyright laws since the owner
of the work can do whatever he wants with his work. We can safely
say that these sites are probably the only legal sites of the
Can I use a little bit of protected music in the training video
I'm doing for my boss? Can I use it in my personal videos? And on
my Web site?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
First of all, it must be understood that copyright laws are
deliberately vague. It is in court that the law is tested and
clarified, and precedents are set for future cases.
We now know that "permitted" use of protected works by an
individual is different from that of an organisation (company,
club, etc.) and even then, it depends on the intended use. For
individual use, if the work is not intended for broadcast in the
general meaning of the word, there is usually a degree of
tolerance, and in some countries it is clearly permitted.
For an organisation, it is a different ball game altogether.
Generally, they can make use of "non significant extract" without a
licence. So, what does "non significant extract" mean? That is the
debatable question. It is generally agreed that 8 to 10 seconds is
a "non significant extract", at 15 seconds, you start playing with
fire and at 30 seconds, you have every reason to believe that you
are violating the copyright laws.
As for web sites, generally you must obtain a license, whatever or
whoever you are. There are many criteria to be taken into account
when deciding what category of music user you fall into; these
criteria are beyond the scope of this article. So it is best to
check with your local performing rights organisations.
Can I make myself a copy of one of my teacher's piano scores or
of a score that I already own?
This has to do with what is known as the "fair use" of a work. What
is it about? It is the use or reproduction of a work for private
study, scholarship, research, etc. If you already own the original
score, you can make yourself a copy on which you may wish to write,
take notes, etc. in order to help you learn the work for example
whilst keeping the original untouched. If you don't have the
original and if you borrow it from a friend to make yourself a
copy, you are breaking the copyright laws.
Can schools make lot of copies of a score to hand out to their
No, but since it is possible to buy a licence allowing multiple
copies of a work to be made at a better price than the purchase of
many original scores, that is how schools usually proceed. This
also falls into the category of "fair use" of a work. Generally
speaking, students don't usually know about this procedure and tend
to believe that anything can be freely copied without asking for
What about the performing rights organisations?
The primary function of these organisations is to collect royalties
for your published works from all over the world through
reciprocity agreements. Some organisations will not protect your
copyrights and will only make sure that you get your fair share for
works that are licenced in your name and are being used and
broadcast. If your works are not published, it is generally a waste
of time dealing with such organisations since they wont have
anything to collect for you. If the protection of your copyrights
is not part of their responsibilities, you will have to see to it
yourself or pay some other agency to act on your behalf.
Should you sell a work?
You may have written something that will attract the attention of
producers or other people involved in show business. You may
receive an offer to sell your work for a fair bit of money. Should
you accept an offer to sell the work or only give a license to use
Selling it may bring you a great deal of money right now. If the
work is not successful, you will be the one who will have made
money and the purchaser will loose money. But if the work is
successful, the purchaser will make the millions and you will have
made a few dollars. Once sold, the work doesn't belong to you
anymore and you will have lost your rights to it. The new owner now
has all the rights to it even if your name still appears as the
author of the work. If you give a licence, you may include whatever
you wish in it since you only agree on a certain use and for a
certain time while maintaining all your rights on your work. If it
is not successful, you don't make much money and if it is, you are
the one who will hit the jackpot. What should you do? It's entirely
up to you...
This is all very well, but this copyright thing is a nuisance and
stops me from doing what I want. Can't I forget about it and do
whatever I please without getting into trouble?
Sure enough you can. In fact, you can break any law you wish, not
only the copyright laws. You might live your whole life without
getting caught, or you might do it just once and end up in
But, if you are a music software user, you are probably the owner
of copyrights yourself. And if so, I suppose that you feel that
your rights ought to be respected, yes? So I imagine that you can
easily understand that the others also feel that their rights
should be respected. After all, they have also spent many hours
writing, arranging and refining their work, they surely wouldn't
appreciate seeing their work circulating freely, even sold without
their permission, and without getting a single penny for it either.
Very often, people who create do it in order to earn their living,
wholly or in part, and they depend on the users of their work for
their income. Knowing how hard it is to enforce the copyright laws,
the scales of justice tend to be weighted in favour of the artist's
Now that you know, it's entirely up to you what you do. It is also
possible that even with the best of intentions you will be
considered to have plagiarised a work without intending to.
Although it doesn't happen very often, sometimes two works appear
to be suspiciously similar. It goes without saying that when this
occurs, it can lead to long and contentious legal proceedings. Many
years ago, borrowing from the work of others was not only widely
accepted but even considered a form of flattery. Look at how many
works by great composers have been used by other great composers:
adapted, transcribed, used for inspiration, or as the basis for
'theme and variations', etc. Different times, different ways of
A short story
I have made many arrangements and versions of known and protected
works without having asked permission to do it... for my own
pleasure, mainly to learn and study, but also to demonstrate to
people what I could do. These works were never broadcast in any
way. They are for my own personal use only and consequently I
haven't broken any laws. You could count on the fingers of my hands
the number of people who have seen or heard any of these pieces.
Only a few trusted people have had this opportunity and, even then,
they haven't seen or heard them all, only 3 or 4 for the most
One day, I received an email saying something along these lines: "I
have a document which is an arrangement that you did. I can't do
anything with it since you protected it with a password. I am the
composer of this work, so give me the password so I can use this
document". Not only was he demanding the password, but he didn't
even say please. Not knowing what to make of this message, I wrote
back asking for more information so that I could figure out what on
earth was going on. When I got his reply it all became very clear:
this guy was trying to say that he was the composer of Chicago's
"Color my World". He got the document by accident from someone I
had sent it to to get his comments on the arrangement that I had
done. I had this person's real name and knew that he was younger
than the song he was supposed to have written. I leave you to
imagine the answer I sent him...
On the Myriad web site in the tunes section under my name, or on my
own site (address given at the end of this text), you will see some
works arranged by me. Since they are drawn from folklore and old
classical works from known or unknown composers, these works are
not protected by copyrights. The arrangements are protected, but I
have not had to ask permission before doing it and I don't have any
royalties to pay either since these work are in the public
However, anyone wishing to use these arrangements must ask my
permission to do so. I could refuse, I could accept under certain
conditions such as if it is mentioned on the program that I am the
arranger, or perhaps I might ask for a certain percentage taken on
each ticket sold when it is performed in front of an audience. If I
refuse and the work is performed despite my refusal, it is
considered a violation of copyright and the performers could be
Now, don't get me wrong, it is not the original work that is
copyrighted but the arrangement that was made of it. Should someone
want to make his own arrangement of this same original work, he can
do it and he need not ask permission from anyone, but he can't use
mine and say he did it, as that would be plagiarism.
Finally, take a look at the copyright notice that appears at the
end of every music page on Myriad's web site. It is very clear and
well put. Here it is as a reminder: "These music files are provided
for private study, scholarship, or research. All rights are owned
by their respective composer. If you want to use one of these files
for public performance, selling, with or without change, you must
get the authorization from its owner." When you send a music file
to Myriad, you give your consent that it be published on the WWW by
Myriad. This "contract" allows you to show your works without cost
and almost free of risk. However, it is your responsibility to
properly protect your files if you so wish. The advantage of the
MUS format is that you can protect your files, whereas the MIDI or
MP3 format don't allow this.
These links will give you much more information. These pages in
turn contain many more links. Do not hesitate to refer to your
country's laws and seek professional advice in case of doubt.
Many thanks to the proof readers, Esmeralda Weatherwax from the UK
and William Croop from the USA, you both did a terrific job!