Sunday, July 11, 2010

Songs and copyright 1: even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it

Somebody created that song you’re singing. They may never have written it down, and you may not know their name, but somebody, somewhere, somewhen, made the effort to compose a beautiful piece of music.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, 1955 by Fred Palumbo

By singing it, you are benefitting from that person’s creativity. Shouldn’t they get some acknowledgement? That’s where copyright comes in.

Jut because a song might be ‘traditional’ or hundreds of years old, it still means that somebody wrote it. Even if it says ‘Anon’ on your copy. That person might not have been a professional musician, but surely they should get some credit or acknowledgement?

What if you had spent weeks finely crafting a beautiful song, then somebody heard it and began to pass it off as their own? Wouldn’t you – at the very least – be a bit miffed?

And what if they wrote down your song (from hearing you singing it), published it in a songbook which sold in its thousands and made a handsome profit?

Of perhaps somebody took your song and changed some of the words and moved some of the notes around in order to make it ‘better’.

What if you planned to sell your new song, but then found that somebody had photocopied the score you had written and passed it around for free among their mates?

Maybe somebody came across an old songbook with your song in it, recorded it for their new CD (without asking you) and made millions. Or perhaps they then used it as part of a film score which went on to make the director a fortune.

It might be that none of these things bother you. But surely it would have been nice if somebody had bothered to ASK YOU if it was OK?

This what copyright is for. Copyright was invented in order to protect the creators of original work, to help stop their work being ‘stolen’ or copied (without their permission) and to enable them to get paid for their creations (if they choose to).

Essentially it enables creators of original work to control how that work is used and to ensure that its integrity is protected.

Many times I go to singing workshops and am taught songs by ear with no reference to who might have written or arranged them. Do those teaching the songs realise that they should have permission to pass the songs on (especially if they’re making money from running the workshop)?

Then there are participants who record the workshop or who come up afterwards to ask for copies of the songs they’ve learnt. Do they not realise that they ought to go out and buy the songbook or CD? Just because a song is passed on orally doesn’t affect copyright or ownership.

What about people who learn a song at a workshop, go home and record the parts which they then distribute to their choir? Just because the song hasn’t been written down doesn’t mean that they can avoid copyright issues.

Just the other day somebody wrote to me and said there was “some confusion” about passing round copies of sheet music in their choir. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is NO confusion. If the songs are copyrighted, then you (usually) DON’T have permission to copy them at will and hand them around – whether you give them out for free or otherwise.

In this series of posts I’m going to try to demystify the issue of copyright, although it is a bit of a minefield!

Do let me know if you have any specific questions in this area and I’ll try to answer them.

Next week I’ll begin to look at copyright in more detail as it relates to songs (music, lyrics, arrangements, recordings, performances, sheet music, etc.). First off I’ll consider what the basic principles behind the concept of copyright are.

This is the first in a series of seven posts about songs and copyright:


UPDATE (14 July 2015)

Since I wrote this post I’ve written two others that might be of interest:

Choirs and copyright: a beginner’s guide for the bewildered

Copying music: how to stay on the right side of the law



Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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