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Copyright Issues

Copyright Issues-Table of Contents


Many of us have those wonderful gray photocopies of hand-notated music, which may or may not have the composer's name, the lyricist's name, or the arranger's name. While this was once a very common practice, the legal and business climate has changed in ways that make these scores in our chorus libraries problematic. Do you have rights to own or copy? Did the arranger have permission to make the arrangement? Did the composer have permission to use the text? Can you legally perform the piece?

This is NOT the source for all things copyright that concern choruses, but we offer some suggestions, experiences and links to help you with you concerns over "intellectual property." {Eds.}



  • {ML} Mary Lycan, Treble Clef Music Press

  • {Eds.} Midge Stocker & Carol E. Wheeler, SSN Web Goddesses

All text is used by permission. Please do not copy without attribution.



Why Does Copyright Matter?

Fundamentally, copyright compliance is about honoring the creators of our music, helping them make their living from their music so that they can make more of it for us.

In Sister Singers choirs, these creators often are women who are friends and lovers, members, if not of our choir, then someone else’s. We are everywhere. “Knowing one” often is an incentive to changing disrespectful behavior. {KB}

The other consideration is of course, legal liability for violating copyright law. While the emphasis seems to be on the evils of downloading and peer-to-peer file sharing, using music scores or texts, including works on a CD you want to sell, all require permission from the 'owners', the folks who hold the copyright. Without it, you could be putting yourself or your chorus in a serious, and expensive, legal situation. The US Copyright law is still being argued in the courts, and Congress is offering amendments both to make the law tougher and less harsh. The current tide is in favor of the holders.

So copyright matters because we want to support those who give us the great songs we sing, and we want to protect our chorus from legal hassles. {Eds.}


Why Does Copyright Matter

For Performers

If you have a new resolve to take copyright more seriously, what do you need to do? You’ve found a song you like and want to include it in your next concert, here is what to do if....... {KB}

  1. the song is (or was) published, even though you may have a photocopy of a published score. Buy enough copies for your choir to use in rehearsal. If the publication is out of print, you must ask the publisher for permission to make copies. (They may offer photocopies for sales from their archives, so don’t assume you can make your own.) Local sheet music stores can give you phone numbers and addresses for publishers.

  2. the song is published, but not for women’s voices, or with enough parts to challenge you, etc. Contact the publisher for permission to arrange. Ditto if you want to change the words significantly (i.e. create a parody* or make something “PC”). Make sure to indicate if you will be charging admission to the performance of your arrangement; standard permission forms often are designed for schools and religious organizations.

  3. someone gave you a copy of an unpublished song: heads up here, because many of us receive such songs from other choruses. These are often the songs by the folks we most want to support. I find it helps to think of this as an “approval copy” from a music store: a chance to look something over before you buy. You must get permission to use this song, even though it is not published (though who knows, it might be by the time it comes to you.) You need permission to make copies, permission to perform, permission to make changes (arrange). It is possible, though, that the name, address and phone number of the composer are not on the music. That makes things harder, but does not change our responsibilities. Ask the person you got it from to ask the person they got it from, to remember which choir sang it, etc. Follow all clues until you track the composer down. Call ASCAP and BMI (phone numbers below) to find out if they have an address and/or phone number for the copyright holder (who won't necessarily be the composer or the arranger). Then, when you (with permission) make your copies, add a note:
    “Property of (your choir). Used by permission of Name, Address, Phone” which is copied onto every piece of music. (Copyright research is sort of like back country hiking: leave it cleaner than you found it.)

  4. you have a tape of a song and figure you can transcribe the arrangement. Ask permission from the artist; the song may be published and you’ll be saved the work, but either way, somebody owns that arrangement and you must ask/pay for its use. (Just think, you might be the fourth request that inspires someone to publish a songbook.)

  5. you have a tape or score of a solo version and want to arrange it for the choir. Get permission from the copyright holder and be sure to ask permission to use the arrangement the way you want to: to perform in a concert to which admission is charged, to give the arrangement away to other women’s choirs or to sell your arrangement (or publish your arrangement).


A lot of work? Well, yes it is, but it is how we can support working composers and arrangers. Remember to give yourself lots of time; the people you are calling or writing to may not love this detail work any more than you do, even though it is to their benefit. But it is wonderful to get letters back from a composer who is delighted that you admire her work, and to discover that she has three other pieces that you might like to see. Honoring the copyright honors the composer and helps our sisters continue to create music for us.


*Parody (lyrics) falls under Fair Use, but you still need permission to perform the music. {Eds.}


For Peformers
For Composers and Arrangers

For Composers and Arrangers

Protecting Your Work

Make it easy for people to find you and harder for them to rip you off: put your name, address and phone number on your music, and not on the edge of the page where copy machines cut it off. If you move often, consider a professional P.O. Box. If you arrange, be sure you have legal permission to arrange and to sell or share your arrangement. Again, standard permission to arrange usually is for your own, non-commercial use. {KB}

Register your work with the Copyright Office. Legally you own the copyright from the moment you begin to create it. Registering it costs money, but also establishes a legal record that it is your work. (See link below)

Just want to share? If you want your compositions or arrangements used, but not necessarily want money for them, you might consider a Creative Commons Licence. {Eds.}

"Offering your work under a Creative Commons license does not mean giving up your copyright. It means offering some of your rights to any taker, and only on certain conditions.


What conditions? Our site will let you mix and match such conditions from the list of options. There are a total of eleven Creative Commons licenses to choose from." {CC Web site}


Making Arrangements

The link below, from the U.S. Copyright Office, lays out the issue of arrangements very well, but it needs some interpreting. So read this explanation before you click the link below.

The question was about differing responses, from a songwriter and a choral publisher, about the necessity to get permission for arrangements.

In this case, songwriter said there's no need for permission to arrange; just pay a mechanical license fee for recording. The choral publisher said you must always get the copyright holder's permission to make an arrangement. [Someone else] said she thought it was a gray area.


Everyone is right!!

The issue is whether the arrangement has much new material.

If it doesn't (if, say, the songwriter does some fancy picking patterns not in the original, but otherwise sings the song pretty much as is), there is no newly composed work. Just a slightly variant performance of an old one. So there is no copyright issue involved in the creation of a new work, just the protection of other rights in the old one: such as, mechanical license fees paid to the holder of the copyright when you make a recording.

However, if a choral arranger takes a solo song (or a folk tune in the public domain) and adds a whole lot of new stuff to it, she essentially creates a new composition out of it, and then there is truly a new artistic work. Since it is based pre-existing material, it is

  • If you arrange Greensleeves as a derivative work, you can do that without anybody's permission, because the tune is in the public domain.

  • If you arrange The Erie Canal as a derivative work, you can do that without anybody's permission, because its composer, Thomas S. Allen, has been dead for so long that copyright has now lapsed and the song is in the public domain.

  • If you arrange Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds as a derivative work, you need to get permission from whoever administers the rights in the Beatles' music, because the original upon which your derivative work is based is protected by copyright. Period.

Once you have permission to make an arrangement, then your arrangement, as a derivative work, is itself protected by copyright. And all the other rights apply as well: you need to pay mechanical licensing fees to the copyright owner of the derivative work for recording, etc.

The link below deals first with the distinction between such copyrightable derivative works and non-copyrightable performances; I guess the Copyright Office has a lot of traffic by people who want register their minutely differing versions of folk songs, etc. Only on the second page of the downloadable .pdf Circular 14 does it deal with the rights of copyright owners of the pre-existing material.

As a choral publisher, I tend to take the (I think reasonable) view that just about any time you take a melody and arrange it for a choir, you are adding substantial new material, thus creating a derivative work. So if your source is not in the public domain, you need permission.


So we are all right. More than you wanted to know! Here, at last, is the link. Isn't copyright exciting? {ML}


Making Arrangements

Copyright Links


Copyright Links


If you know the title of a published work but don't know who publishes it:

If you know the publisher but can't find contact information by [searching]:

  • Musicanet, as above

  • The Music Publishers Association of America

      [Their] home page includes a directory of (not all) music publishers, and a very helpful directory of publishers' imprints (That's where you find out Novello has been swallowed by Shawnee, etc.). You will save yourself a lot of trouble if you are chasing, say, an H.W. Gray piece, if you first establish that publisher's works are now handled by Warner Bros.



Performing Rights

ASCAP and BMI are the two major performing rights organizations in the U.S. If your choir produces concerts, you should have an agreement with each. Performance fees are based on highest admission fee and the seating in the hall. Fees still are due on free events. {KB}

  • ASCAP One Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY 10023; 1-212-595-3050

  • BMI 320 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019; 1-212-586-2000

  • SOCAN (Canadian) 41 Valleybrook Drive, Toronto, ON M3B 2S6
    Phone: 1-416-445-8700

[See more Useful Links]


Performing Rights

Mechanical Licensing

The Harry Fox Agency, Inc.
Necessary for CDs and other recordings.


Mechanical Licensing
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