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The Official Copyright Thread (USA ONLY)


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After riveted discussion with my wife, a lawyer, I have come upon what I believe should be the "final word" on the Copyright issues some members tend to bring up when we're talking about arrangements of music. Feel free to refer back to this thread or link to it if someone poses the question of, "Are you sure it's legal?" when you are presented with an opportunity to arrange music as a composer.

Any original work under copyright is simply known as the original work. If you arrange a work that has copyright protection, you are creating a derivative work. Without permission from the creator of the original work, creating a derivative work of the original work under U.S. copyright laws is illegal - with some exceptions. An important exception for composers to understand is the "Fair Use" exception. Here is the general gist of the exception.

The essential question of the Fair Use exception is whether or not the derivative work you've written occupies a substitute market, affecting the "market share" of the original creator. If a substitute market exists for the work you have written and you are profiting from that market, you are in violation of copyright if you do not have the permission of the holder of copyright. This is a great explanation of Fair Use of copyright works.

One of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the copyright law (title 17, U. S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “fair use.” The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

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  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

Copyright protects the particular way an author has expressed himself. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in the work.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.

When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of fair use would clearly apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine if a certain use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.


So, if you're a student composer, a teacher, or generally a composer who is approached to write an arrangement of music under copyright, consider the purpose of the work (is this for commercial or non-profit purposes?), the nature of the copyrighted work (is this a popular song heard on the radio being arranged for your high school band?), how much of the music you plan to use (are you writing a medley or suite?), and will your arrangement impact the market for which the original work was written? Here are some examples where copyright has been infringed, where "Fair Use" has been rejected. If I find others, I'll post them as an addendum to this.

A Junior Community College ensemble and its director re-arranged a choral work written for educational purposes, performed it once, and 47 copies of the performance were made for each member of the college choir. This was held as infringement because the choral work was written for the educational market and the composer relied on the royalties from the performance of the work as a source of his income.

A music publishing company filed a suit against the A&E network over its use of 12 seconds of the song, "Rocky Top." The Middle District of Tennessee ruled that the use by the network was not fair use, but details are sketchy since the case was settled and none of the details were released.

The point of this is to shed some light on an issue that otherwise leaves us cowering in the shadow of ignorance, fear, and paranoia. I'll try to keep updating this as I come across other cases, if only to help the rest of the community here. As the quoted portion from the U.S. Copyright Office website above, I also advise that in the event of any doubt, you should consult an attorney.

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I think it's important to note that the last person to be held responsible for sorting out permission issues is the composer/arranger and performers. The venue in which the performance is to occur (ie whoever it is who hires you) is the guy who has to watch what he's asking for.

If your employer doesn't know anything about it, we should take care of that and simply factor the cost into the final fee, unless he chooses to risk the penalty of copyright violation.

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I don't know if we can or even should pretend to give legal advice. It seems a little irresponsible. Anyone with interest in the subject can consult a copyright lawyer if they're really that worried.

I don't know about it being irresponsible. Any information posted on the internet is to be taken with a grain of salt and/or the whole can. You can always ask what other people know.

Really, copyright is one of those things where it's extremely ambiguous anyway. Yes, you can find a copyright lawyer to get an exact consultation on your particular one-time situation...or you can get the general gist here for free.

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  • 3 months later...
  • 2 weeks later...
  • 3 years later...

I noticed ( likemost other peolple) the new website design. But I also noted a copyright sign below some of my uploaded music stating "Copyright and  All Rights Reserved" by YC. Explain me please what you mean. I am of the opinion that the entire and sole copyright and other rights pertaining to the uploaded music is by the composer, unless there is an explicit contract copyright transfer.


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I used to send in 'a collection' of songs via CD to blanket copyright a lot of material at one time.. MY interpretation of the Copyright Website was only one song could be copy written electronically.. 


The problem with snail mail. is it takes an eternity, the copyright is dated when you mailed the package.. I once tried to copyright a song (written by 3 people).. Well they cashed my check and then took a year to tell me, my copyright wasn't valid, caused I used the wrong application.  

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  • 2 years later...

Hey Google Drive (like a cloud service) has language that says, they can do what they please with what you upload there. Disseminate it ways they see fit.  If you delete they can can and do retain it..  Facebook came out with a similar statement a few years back, that things uploaded to them became their property..  

Copyright can be discussed, determined, and bent in a court of law..   When George Harrison got sued for "My Sweet Lord",  being stolen from 'He's So Fine' by the Chiffons, a 60's group.. It was an exercise for the lawyers..  Harrison did lose. I don't remember the fine, though.. 

Lennon got sued by lifting a few words from a Chuck Berry song.. Rather than pay a fine, he decided to record an album of his old favorite rock'n'roll tunes which were all owned by the same publisher.. Everybody one..  Lennon sold a LOT of albums, the Publishers made great money, and the listeners got to hear John Lennon interpretations of some of their favorite music. 

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