Sunday, August 01, 2010

Songs and copyright 4: how the law works

Every song was written by somebody and it seems fair and reasonable to acknowledge (and maybe reward) that person. This is the basic principle underlying the copyright laws, even though such laws may seem heavy-handed at times.

Last week I looked at the kinds of things we might want to copyright and what kinds of rights we can give people over these things.


Policeman by Ian Britton

Now we come to how all these good intentions have become embedded in law.

what you can and can’t do

If a song is protected by copyright in any form (sheet music, CD recording, arrangement, etc.), then there are certain things that you can do, certain things that you need permission to do, and certain things that you can’t do.

The one thing you definitely can’t ever do is to claim work as your own if you didn’t make it. The creator of the song has the moral right to be identified as its creator.

The most important thing that you can’t do is to copy a song in any way without permission. Hence the phrase ‘copy right’.

What you can do, having bought the sheet music or recording of a song, is to play it or sing it for your own enjoyment, but you can’t make copies for your mates or choir members.

isn’t it mine when I’ve bought it?

When you buy a song in the form of sheet music or as a recording, you have effectively been granted a license which allows you to do certain things with it. The terms of these licenses vary, but basically they allow you (within reason) to do what you like with the song for your own personal use.

Usually (unless otherwise stated) you can’t do anything with it from which you will gain financially (teach it, lend it, perform it, play it at a club, sell copies of, broadcast it). And as we’ve seen above, you can’t copy it, although in practice it’s probably OK to burn a CD of some MP3s that you’ve bought so you can play them in your car. But even then I’m not sure it’s totally legal!

types of copying

Depending on the medium of the song (written music, recording, etc.) there are many different ways of copying it, some more obvious than others:

  • Sheet music can be photocopied, scanned or written out again by hand.
  • Recorded music can be duplicated (by burning a CD, ripping tracks to your PC, recording off the radio onto your cassette machine, copying a digital file off the internet).
  • A live performance can be recorded in a range of different ways (on your phone, on a dictaphone, on your camera, with portable recording equipment).

apparently grey areas

There are other ways of copying a song which people think aren’t really copying so it doesn’t count:

  • Transcribe an arrangement or melody from a recording – listen to a recording carefully and work out what the melody and harmonies are, then note them down in some way.
  • Record a song-teaching session – many people bring recording devices to workshops and record the parts as they’re being taught.
  • Teach a song by ear that you’ve heard somewhere – either from a workshop or a recording or being taught by a friend.

These are all forms of copying and as such are subject to copyright laws.

where does that leave people who teach/ arrange by ear?

In a traditional choir which uses written sheet music, the choir have to buy one copy of the music for each and every choir member. To save costs, it’s sometimes possible to borrow or rent a whole set of scores for a one-off performance.

But in a choir that doesn’t use sheet music, the situation is different. The choir leader may buy the sheet music and then teach the song by ear. In which case, the composer/ publisher/ arranger is losing out on their ‘normal’ revenue. Some song writers and arrangers ask you to pay the equivalent of buying one copy for every choir member even if you only need one copy because you’re going to teach it by ear.

And what if your choir leader uses their single copy of the sheet music to make some parts CDs which are then sold or distributed amongst choir members so they can learn their parts? This is a form of copying so is breaking copyright law.

Some song writers and arrangers don’t read or write music. They pas on their work by recording their songs or producing teaching CDs with the individual parts on. You may find that buying a song in this way is a lot more expensive than buying sheet music. The reason is that the arranger/ song writer knows that you will probably be teaching their song/ arrangement to your choir or workshop so factor that in to the price (rather like publishers insisting you buy one copy of the sheet music for each choir member).

It is all too easy, especially when teaching by ear, to just buy one copy of the sheet music, or make parts CDs without realising that you’re  making money from somebody else’s work.

how long does copyright last?

In the UK, copyright in a musical or literary work generally lasts for 70 years after the composer or author dies. A sound recording is typically protected for 50 years from when it was made (although some artists are lobbying to have that extended!), and a printed edition is generally protected for 25 years from when it was first published.

what do those weird symbols mean?

You are probably familiar with the © symbol. This is the copyright symbol used to indicate that something is protected by copyright. To explicitly assert your rights to a piece of work that is written down, simply put the copyright symbol (or the word ‘Copyright’) followed by the year of publication/ creation then your name.

The symbol for sound recording copyright is a ‘p’ in a circle. You will need this on CD recordings of your song for example.

Other symbols you may come across are the registered trademark symbol ®. Trademarks that have not been registered use the symbol TM. A trademark is typically a name, word, phrase, design or logo. This may apply, for example, to your choir or band name or logo if you wish to protect it.

how do I know if something is copyrighted?

Pretty much every piece of sheet music or recording is copyrighted, even if there is no explicit copyright symbol. Just because it appears to be an old song, don’t assume that it’s in the public domain (i.e. not subject to copyright).

It is up to the creator of a piece of work whether they want to restrict what you can do with their song. You may find at the bottom of a piece of sheet music “Feel free to photocopy and pass on”. There are also other ways in which creators can protect or license their work (see a later post in this series), so you can’t assume that all work is protected in the same way. Do your research!

copyright law in the age of the internet

It is so much easier these days to copy material due to its digital format (no loss of information – remember those hissy tapes that your mates used to pass around?) and our networked world (mobile phones, internet). That just means that illegal copying is harder to keep control of than before. The same fears were around when the printing press was invented. Prior to that, sheet music and lyrics had to be copied by hand.

Illegal downloads and file sharing abound. Copying a CD for your mate is a breeze. Making a half-way decent recording of a live gig is almost undetectable. So copying is easier, but it’s still against the law.

But which law? Because of our global connectivity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know which law applies and who is responsible for breaking it (the downloader, PC owner, ISP, mobile network?).

how is the law enforced?

We’ve all read recently of the heavy-handed and perhaps misguided attempts by record companies to give huge fines to individuals who are found to have downloaded material that they hadn’t paid for. We also know about the cheap knock-off DVDs that are sold at car boot sales alongside pirated copies of the latest release of Windows.

Most stories that hit the news are about recorded movies, music or software and involve large multi-national corporations. If someone rips off a Madonna or Robbie Williams song and makes a fortune from it or passes it off as their own, the lawyers will be all over it in seconds.

But what about the world of choirs and community singing? Are the police likely to raid a concert where you’re performing your illicit, unlicensed arrangement of a Beatles song? Will the music publishers be down on you like a ton of bricks if you teach said song in a workshop?

What if you’ve very properly bought a licensed arrangement of a Beatles song as sheet music, but then go on to teach it by ear to your choir or even produce parts CDs? And if you your friend passes you the recorded parts of this amazing African song that’s been doing the rounds, are you definitely going to check that the arrangement is not in copyright or the song is really in the public domain?

The reality is that we can (and almost certainly do) get away with these things. But are you comfortable making a living from other people’s hard work? For instance, that African song I was sent recently turns out to be a modern arrangement that has been published as sheet music which I really should have bought.

It may seem OK doing a few Beatles or ABBA arrangements and making a few quid teaching them in a workshop, after all, they probably don’t need the money! But what if the song in question was from a struggling singer-songwriter who is desperately trying to make a living? In a later post I’ll show exactly how you can get permission to do all these sorts of things without breaking the law (if that makes you feel better).

But a lot of what we do ends up being about individual conscience. Next week I want to look a bit deeper into the moral aspect of copyright. Is it just a capitalist invention? Can there really be such a thing as intellectual ‘property’? Who ‘owns’ the music of a particular culture or tradition? Can the ‘ownership’ of a song be bought and sold? Who owns the song?

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

  1. Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it
  2. Basic principles of copyright
  3. Different kinds of rights
  4. How the law works
  5. Who owns the song?
  6. How to get permission to use a song
  7. Alternatives


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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