Music and copyright (or “Stealing from musicians is ok, right?”)

Copyright law is internationally upheld as a fundamental right for composers, lyricists, librettists and writers (referred to collectively in this article as ‘creators’, and publishers for good reasons. However, these creators and copyright holders typically lose out financially to the practice of people copying or distributing (e.g. emailing) unpaid-for copies of the music instead of buying them. Every time a copy is made or distributed without the creator’s or copyright holder’s permission, that person is being forced to work for free.

What follows is a brief outline of the principles of copyright as they apply to music and lyrics, including some explanation of ‘fair use’. The second section describes some of the ways that people try to justify infringing copyright – and how to refute such arguments. The third section explores what principles we might use to restore fairness – as well as hope – to composers, lyricists and the publishers who help them.

“Copyright is an automatic legal right which protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. … [It] enables those who have created a work, such as a song, or story, to be paid for their creativity and to be acknowledged as the creator…. Copyright owners can … control how their work is used ie how it is copied, distributed, altered, transmitted, broadcast or performed. Anyone who uses a copyright work without permission can be guilty of infringement and action could be taken against them.”[1]

Within copyright law, the ‘reproduction right’ gives the copyright owner the exclusive right 
to make copies of the work. Buying a piece of sheet music confers the right to sing or play from it, but not to copy or distribute its contents (except for ‘Fair use’ – see below), which remain the property of its creator. Copying without permission – including emailing versions to people, or making versions available through the internet – encroaches on the business rights of the copyright holder, which constitutes theft.

Making a manuscript version or new digital or print version of a piece sheet music is still infringement of copyright, and a denial of the copyright holder’s exclusive right to profit from the product of the creative work.

Making minor changes to a composer’s sheet music, creating an arrangement of it, modifying a lyricist’s words, or making a derivative work or adaptation of something is an infringement of the creators’ and publisher’s copyright.

“If you want to use someone else’s music such as a song, part of a song (even a very small part) or sample, it is important to seek permission to do so either from the copyright owner or from the relevant collection society. This is also the case if you want to make an arrangement of someone else’s work.”[2]

Copyright law provides for educators to photocopy for teaching purposes within clear limitations under the principle of ‘Fair Use’. First, sheet music can be copied for teaching purposes – and even performance – strictly within a classroom or course, but the teachers and students may not legally take the copies away, rehearse or perform with the copies outside the classroom context. A regular choir doesn’t constitute a classroom context.

Second, sheet music may not be copied for coursepacks – permission from the composer / publisher must be obtained.

Third, multiple photocopies must meet the tests of: brevity (only short excerpts and not complete pieces of music); spontaneity (an individual teacher’s initiative, rather than an organisation’s materials for educational provision); cumulative effect (use in one class or course and not a repeated course, not more than one piece of music from the book); prohibition on using copies to create or substitute for anthologies, or to substitute for the purchase of books; students may not be charged beyond the cost of the photocopying; each copy should include a notice of copyright.

Defending the indefensible

I have had many discussions about photocopying sheet music without creators’ or publishers’ permission. It usually starts with someone believing (and hotly defending) that copying (including, emailing out copies) is legally permissible. It isn’t. It is theft. It is illegal – internationally. The reasons why have been set out in the previous section.

The next line of defence is usually based on spurious appeals to ‘morality’, ‘realism’ or ‘pragmatism’. Attempts to justify illegal copying are endlessly creative. Here are a few:

  1. “It’s only a few copies.” Is it really okay to steal, as long as we only steal ‘a little bit’? A variant of this is: “It’s just one copy (or emailed copy) – that won’t make any difference.” What would happen to a creator’s or copyright holder’s livelihood if everyone said that, and nobody paid for original sheet music?
  2. “Lots of people do it.” Can we really do anything we want, even if it’s illegal or immoral, as long as other people do it too? Sometimes people contradict themselves and argue points 1 and 2 simultaneously!
  3. “We’re not making any money from it.” Is it okay to take something that belongs to someone else, as long as we don’t make money from it?
  4. “It’s doing the composer / publisher a favour – I’ll tell everyone else how good it is.” Is it okay to take from someone, without their permission, as long as we tell everyone else how much we appreciate what we took? That would make stealing one of the most bizarre forms of flattery. Wouldn’t those other people we told also then assume that they, too, could take without paying? Is it reasonable for me to sneak into a cinema without paying, as long as I tell someone else about the movie I saw?
  5. “Sheet music is too expensive.” If I don’t want to pay the asking price for something, is it okay for me not to pay anything at all, and take the item, without permission?
  6. “You can’t stop it happening.” Do we have no control over – or responsibility for – even our own actions? Are we incapable of stopping even ourselvescopying illegally? Do we have no power to encourage others to stop illegal copying or distributing – or at least call them out on it?
  7. “It helps keep music alive.” What will help keep the composer and publisher alive if they don’t get paid for their work? Why should they invest so much money and time in their professional training and careers, and keep creating music if they get no payment? Do we expect other skilled people to work for no pay? Actually, copying, especially amongst amateur music-makers, and distributing illegally through the internet is doing massive damage to creators and the creative industries across the world. Professional arts organisations, creators, lawyers, legislators and governments worldwide are working on tightening the law and communicating with the public to try and stop the rot.
  8. “We’re not professional musicians.” Is it okay to steal or do something illegal if we’re amateurs or enthusiasts?
  9. “It’s for a church, synagogue or charity.” Should religious institutions and charities be allowed to operate outside the law, and not have to pay for anything? Should secular creators work for faith organisations for free? Should a creator be obligated to donate to a charity, at the charity’s discretion? Should charities be legally or morally permitted to take from whomever, and whenever, they like?
  10. “It’s just for personal or private use.” Is it fair to take from someone else – to have something for nothing -, as long as it’s ‘just for our personal use’? Why bother paying for anything then?
  11. “It’s just for one performance.” Why pay for single use of anything – for food, or a ticket for the cinema or a concert, or rented videos? Why pay for food or drink? That’s ‘single use’.
  12. “We’ll destroy the copies afterwards.” Is it reasonable to steal and use something if we hide the evidence? And can we be completely sure that nobodywill hold onto their own copy, or make another one?
  13. “Nobody would perform music if every copy had to be bought.” Would nobody eat or dress if we had to pay for food and clothing? Is it true that nobodyis prepared to engage in fair exchange for goods or services?
  14. “That musician has made plenty of money anyway. S/he can afford the copies I’m making.” Is it okay to steal from someone who is – or who we believe to be – rich? Should we get decide how someone else’s earnings should be used – especially if it’s for our own benefit?
  15. “Musicians should do it for love, and be grateful people want their music.” Should we only pay people who don’tlike their work? Should we only pay people when wedon’t like what they produce?!

I called this section ‘Defending the indefensible’. The problem is that infringing copyright is so easy to get away with. Sadly, “nobody will know” is sometimes used as a rationale for copying. Even though legislation exists, the crime is largely undetectable, which means that copyright infringement is actually ‘exploiting the defenceless’. Is that morally defensible?

Defending the undefended

Here are some principles that we might use to discourage illicit copying and distributing of music, that might guide us on copyright and the rights and reasonable claims of creators.

  1. Aim to uphold the law. The spirit and purpose of copyright legislation is the preservation of social justice and fairness.
  1. One who derives benefit through another person’s loss is liable to provide compensation. So someone could copy, if a) if it was generally true that selling and profiting from the sale of sheet music was not the convention for creators or publishers, or b) the creator or publisher lost nothing by it. Copying sheet music is clearly a violation of this principle. Why should students, performers, teachers, and conductors – and even manufacturers of ink, photocopiers and paper – benefit from the compositions, further their own career or income from them, without compensating the creators who helped them? Should creators be excluded while so many others profit from the creators’ work? Copying sheet music is not a victimless crime. Creators and the staff of publishers are the victims.
  1. A person may not capitalize on the investment (in time, skill and resources) made by someone else – the profits are the exclusive right of the original ‘investor’. In this case, the investors in the creation of music are the composer, lyricist and publisher; photocopying encroaches on and violates the creators’ business rights.
  1. An owner (or creator in this case) can sell certain rights while retaining others. The convention in international law is that a creator (or publisher) sells the sheet music, but retains the exclusive rights to making copies of the music – which means that the buyer of the sheet music does not buy the right to make more copies.
  1. Challenge “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine”. Someone who says that they can freely copy a piece of sheet music is saying to the creator: “The sheet music that I bought is mine, and the rights to copying it are mine.” The first half of the statement is true, but the second half is untrue in law and selfish: copying rights are exclusively the creator’s and publisher’s.
  1. The Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not want people to do to you. We do not like others to exploit us, or not give due recognition to our contribution or efforts. Seeing or knowing an illicit copy of sheet music being used, and doing nothing, is wrong.
  1. Do the right thing. Insist on fair play. Put things right. The creator is powerless to stop people copying or distributing sheet music without their permission, and loses out when they do. Please stop those who do it. Speak out against illicit copying or use of copies.

In essence, copyright law asserts legal and moral property rights; the music is the property of the composer, the lyrics are the property of the lyricist, and the sheet music is the combined property of the composer, lyricist and publisher (unless copyright is assigned exclusively to the publisher). The purchaser’s rights extend only to the use and enjoyment of the sheet music, and then, only those copies that they buy. If the reader finds these arguments persuasive, then there is another principle to consider:

  1. The property of our neighbours should be as precious to us as our own. Are we going to protect the property of our fellow musicians, or collude in theft?

A final thought

Just because we love a piece of music doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay for it. Using or distributing illicit copies of sheet music is prizing what has been created at the same time as trashing the people who created it. Would we be prepared to face a composer or lyricist and say: “I like what you have created so much that I’m going to take it off you. And I’m not going to give you anything in return because a) you don’t deserve it, b) I can get away with it, and c) I simply don’t care about you.”

[1] ‘Copyright in Music: Frequently asked questions relating to copyright in music’, Intellectual Property Guides, Leeds Library & Information Services 2007 – Information compiled by Ged Doonan (Leeds Central Library Patents Information Unit ) with thanks to Ian Nipper –, p.1

[2] ibid. p.7

18 thoughts on “Music and copyright (or “Stealing from musicians is ok, right?”)”

  1. Love this! Ran across it trying to figure out how to buy rights from Oxford to print a song that is out of print. I work in a music librarian capacity for a religious organization and get rid of illegal copies and let choir directors know that isn’t acceptable.

  2. OK. So my dilemma is I have an app on my iPad that gives me the option to set up registrations on my keyboard that then links to my iPad…e.g I select a score stored on my iPad in PDF firmat and technology then selects the registration on my keyboard so I can just play. I purchase scores from a provider that allows me to print one copy but I can’t scan this to PDF so I can then use the score on my iPad and keyboard. I am not distributing but wanting to use a score legitimately purchased but in a more tech savvy way….is this not considered fair use…..

    1. I am not qualified to give legal advice. However, if I buy a book of sheet music, for example, and then make my own single page photocopy to play from myself, I regard that as morally acceptable. I am not making the photocopy available to anyone else, and I have bought my original anyway. Your example seems similar to that.

  3. OK. So my dilemma is I have an app on my iPad that gives me the option to set up registrations on my keyboard that then links to my iPad…e.g I select a score stored on my iPad in PDF firmat and technology then selects the registration on my keyboard so I can just play. I purchase scores from a provider that allows me to print one copy but I can’t scan this to PDF so I can then use the score on my iPad and keyboard. I am not distributing but wanting to use a score legitimately purchased but in a more tech savvy way….is this not considered fair use…..note I have scanned many of my scores already so I can use them with my iPad and keyboard. The app I use is Songbook+ and since using this I hardly ever need to find the score in sheet music form as it’s now digital and at my finger tips, no pun intended. All music I have has been purchased by me of gifts from family friends.

      1. I also cannot give legal advice, but the following ethical principle applies: Does your action actually or potentially deprive the copright holder of the benefits of their creation. The difficulty arises because of the notion of potential harm. Strictly speaking, the use of an app in this way is similar to photocoping an entire piece which one has paid for just for personal use (for example, for practice, making annnotations and so on). My understanding is that such a ‘whole piece’ photocopy is not legal, because it is open to abuse (someone else might get hold of the copy, etc). This is the notion of potential harm to the copyright holder. At the same time, such situations are usually governed by the ‘reasonable person’ approach – would a reasonable person regard the potential harm as more than remotely likely. Finally, the belt and braces approach is to approach the copyright holder and ask them if it is OK to do as you described. Often this is easier to do than you might think. Most major publishing houses have permissions departments or a person designated to deal with permissiosn requests.

        1. Alexander Massey

          I think the ‘reasonable man’ argument is difficult to follow through. Who decides what constitutes a ‘reasonable man’? People can confuse ‘reasonable’ with ‘average’. The average person may be biased, unreasonable, or uninformed. Why ‘man’? ‘Reasonable women’ – or other categories of person – may differ from a ‘man’ in their outlook and thinking processes. Sadly, I have argued these copyright issues with amateur musicians, clergy, even a lawyer friend, all who think it is unreasonable for musicians to charge for their sheet music or recordings.

  4. Sharon Dibsdall

    Hello – I’ve just taken over as Librarian of a brass band. We purchase our music from various publishers. The instrumental parts received are often a little short of the numbers in the band, especially 2nd and 3rd parts, where learners come and sit, when they enter the band. Players often find it difficult to share parts. Opinions seem to vary as to whether ‘fair use’ covers the photocopying of extra parts like these. I want to get this right.

    1. Alexander Massey

      I am not in a position to give legal advice. However, my understanding is that there is no ambiguity here. If you are using something regularly, e.g. a learning environment, or regular music practice, that constitutes a situation where paid-for copies must be used. And they would definitely need to be used in a performance. It is irrelevant whether the musicians are amateurs, hobbyists or unpaid themselves, or raising money for charity. The copyright holders have not given consent for free copies to be made, or for their music to be used for free because the musician wants to contribute to charity.

  5. If the original song is copywritten by the author/composer, Can another person who writes the music score to that same song steal it, and get away with it???

    1. Unfortunately, yes. There are many ways to steal from songwriters and lyricists. We have to rely on people to be honest and fair, and do the right thing.

  6. I can either buy two heavy volumes of music for the choir I sing in for $150 or buy the PDF version for $150. I would rather buy the latter and just print out the music that I need for that week instead of lugging around the big books. I would only print out one copy that I would use for myself. However, the publisher says that I can’t do that and that the PDF version is only for use on a tablet and that printing is not permitted. I don’t see what harm I do if I go ahead with buying the PDF version and making copies for myself as needed. Would I be doing anything unethical or that would harm the publisher?

    1. Alexander Massey

      Interesting question. The publisher, as the copyright holder, can decide what you are allowed to do with their published music. So, in theory, they can insist you don’t print. I suspect their motivation is to prevent you from taking another step beyond that – photocopying something you have printed. I sympathise with your wish to print one copy for your own use, having already spent the money on buying the PDF publication.

  7. Hi,
    I’m in a choir that buys each of us a copy of each song we sing but because some scores are very hard to read I have copied them on to my iPad for use in rehearsals. Once we have learnt a song we no longer use the score unless we need to re rehearse a particular piece again.
    So my question is…’Am I breaking the law having a paid for paper score copied onto my iPad for use while learning it / in rehearsals?’

    1. Technically, I think you have broken the law. But I think you have probably kept within the spirit of the not depriving the copyright holder(s) of their fair compensation. (See Chris Sansum’s comment).

  8. Interesting one this. I have a couple of circumstances where I would technically be breaching copyright, but am not depriving the copyright owner:

    i) For practicing or performing away from home, I like to keep a collection of pieces I have learned in a folder. I own the originals, but to take them all I would have to lug around a huge weight of books.

    ii) Some pieces contain difficult or impossible page turns, which can be remedied by photocopying a page or two. Again I have already paid the copyright owner for their work – I am just resolving a problematic issue with the score as they have published it.

    Under these circumstances I have paid the copyright owner in full, but technically this could be seen as a breach of copyright.

    I guess the answer is to assess whether you are depriving anyone of their rightful rewards for their work.

    Interestingly I was talking to someone who releases recordings, and they explained that you have to give royalties to music score publishers when you make a sound recording where you have utilised a copyright score. Quite a substantial fee. Guess in the case of classical music it is worth seeking out a facsimile of the original to learn from if you want to avoid this.

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