Monday, November 17, 2014

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

[NB this post is about UK copyright laws. Although the situation will be similar in other countries, the various copyright and performing rights agencies and websites will obviously be different]

I wrote extensively about copyright way back in 2010 (see my series of seven posts Songs and copyright), but I still get emails every week from choir leaders asking me questions!


I’m certainly no expert, especially since I don’t use sheet music, but I thought I’d revisit the topic and try to spell it out in simple terms. Here goes!

Copyright in music exists so that composers, song writers, lyricists and song arrangers can claim ownership of their work.

Once a song has been created, its creator automatically has copyright over it.

In the United Kingdom the copyright on a song lasts for 70 years from its creator’s death. Other countries have slightly different copyright laws, but the principle is similar.

the clue is in the name: copyright

The writer/ arranger/ lyricist of a song automatically has the right to copy it as much as they want, but you don’t. Basically no copies, no problem.

But as soon as you arrange, or write the notes down, or print the lyrics of a song that is still in copyright, you are infringing someone’s copyright and breaking the law.

If a song is in copyright you cannot do any of these things:

  • make copies of the lyrics for others — even if this is a single hand-written sheet on the wall
  • arrange the song for your singing group — either by writing it down or recording it on your phone or computer
  • copy the sheet music — by photocopying it, or transcribing or scanning it into a computer programme, or copying the music out by hand
  • project the lyrics on the wall from your laptop connected to the internet
  • pass on an arrangement of the song (whether sold, given away or swapped) whether it’s a recording or written down
— even if it’s in a private rehearsal or workshop.

And if you find a song in a really, really old book, it may still be in copyright (who wrote or arranged it? when did they die? then add 70 years).

For more detailed information, check out the Copyright Service’s website.

but if you ask nicely . . .

However, you can do all the above if you ask permission of the copyright holder. You will then be within the law.

Some copyright holders will freely give their permission for you to arrange their song or copy it out, others will charge a fee.

For example, some publishers insist that you buy as many copies of the sheet music as there are choir members; other arrangers might charge you a licence fee which enables you to make up to a certain number of copies; and some (like the excellent Voiceworks series from the OUP) allow you to make as many photocopies as you like.

To find out who owns the rights to a particular song you can contact the Music Publishers’ Association.

performing other people’s songs

When you buy sheet music you don't buy permission to perform it. Copyright is about copying, performing rights are about performing.

PRS (Performing Rights Society) acts as an organisation which collects payments on behalf of song writers and arrangers. They can be found at PRS for Music.

Any venue hosting live music events should have a PRS licence. If you’re performing to a paying audience, then you need to give the venue a list of the songs you’ll be singing. The venue will then tell PRS. You don't need permission to perform the songs, you just need to pay for the right to.

Sometimes a venue will have a blanket licence which covers all live performances, but others (like the church where we hold our annual concert) will have to pay a small percentage of the ticket sales. They will almost certainly pass some of that responsibility onto you. Last year we had to pay around £40 for our concert. Next year I’m going to make sure that none of our songs are in copyright (i.e. they’re all in the public domain) so we won’t have to pay anything to PRS.

If your choir decides to make a CD and any of the songs or arrangements are in copyright, you’ll need to inform MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Service ). MCPS can also be found at PRS for Music. You’ll have to fill in a fairly straightforward form then pay a small fee depending on how many songs on the CD are in copyright, how many CDs you’ll be pressing and how much you’ll be selling each one for.

The same applies if you upload a video of a performance to YouTube or similar. Again, you’ll need to inform MCPS.

what can I do with other people’s songs?

You can teach a song by ear to a group of people as long as there is no audio or written copy, either of the music or the lyrics, either physical or digital.

You can perform a copyrighted song in public as long as you don’t sell tickets or collect money.

I do hope that makes things a little clearer. I expect I’ll still get emails each week, but at least I can now refer them to this post!

Do let me know if you think I’ve got anything wrong or if something is not clear. I’ll then correct or edit it. Thanks.

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: