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Copyright laws

Laurier Nappert


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 too.

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 laws.
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 action.
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 countries?

Generally, yes if that other country has signed the Universal Convention on Copyrights, which is the case for most countries in the world.

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 copyright.
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 sources).
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 kind.

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 students?

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 proper permission.

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 it?
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 jail.
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 infringed rights.
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 doing things!

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 part.
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...

A suggestion

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 domain.
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 prosecuted.
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!

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