About Copyright

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Here you’ll find quick reference notes on copyright.  These are general notes and not intended to replace or change copyright law, but are only for the purposes of your understanding it. 

Any work published before 1922 is in the public domain (later arrangements may still be copyrighted).  The copyright law changed in 1978.  These notes are for the copyright law in effect today.
For questions on copyright, see http://www.copyright.gov/ or you may want to check the website http://www.pdinfo.com/Copyright-Law/Copyright-and-Public-Domain.php

A song is either in the Public Domain or is under Copyright

If a work is in the public domain, the public may use it freely.  It can get a little tricky though, as the tune may be in the public domain – but the arrangement is copyrighted.  Or the tune is in the public domain, but the recorded performance is copyrighted by the performer or record company.  (This is usually indicated by a symbol like the copyright c with a circle around it, only the circle is around the letter p.)     

Printed sheet music is copyrighted, although you may create your own sheet music of the melody (not arrangement) of a public domain song.  If you write your own arrangment, you may copyright it.  Printed lyrics in a book are also copyrighted, but you may create your own document file of public domain songs as long as you do not copy someone else’s work and do your own typesetting (file creation).

If a song is not a commissioned work (someone paid the author to create it), it does not enter the public domain until 70 years after the date the author has died (not the date the song was written). 

If the song is a commissioned work, its copyright may run 95 to 120 years.

FAIR USE of a COPYRIGHTED song, see quick notes below or click on http://www.pdinfo.com/Copyright-Law/Music-and-Fair-Use.php. 

If a song includes a permission to use or registered trademarks (such as the words Girl Scout), it must be used in accordance with the owner’s guidelines.

You CAN be sued for violating copyright, see http://ca.music.yahoo.com/blogs/amplifier/minnesota-mom-hit-with-15-million-fine-for-downloading-24-songs.html.


You MAY post lyrics on a poster, transparency, or an overhead screen for use in teaching.
You MAY NOT copy or re-write lyrics and distribute them.

You MAY make copies of lyrics to hand out for teaching as long as EVERY COPY is collected back at the end.
You MAY NOT distribute copies of music or lyrics unless EVERY COPY is collected back at the end.

You MAY use music in the public domain to create a new work by writing your own words (Aura Lee is public domain, Love Me Tender is copyrighted)
You MAY write a parody of a song by writing new lyrics to a copyrighted tune and referencing the tune title on the lyrics page.
You MAY NOT use someone else’s parody lyrics which are copyrighted (e.g. On Top of Spaghetti by Tom Glazer 1963 or Pink Pyjamas by Esther J. Nelson 1988) without permission.

You MAY make a single copy for your personal songbook.
You MAY NOT perform copyrighted works for profit or at an event where a fee is charged.

For other articles on copyright, see San Jose Mercury News, Sunday, Jan 19, 2003 A Copyright Wrong, The Costco Connection, January 2005 Own not, copy not and Protecting Your Work (same issue).

On a final note, don’t be afraid to ask.  I have worked among musicians in the musical community and received permission to use works for various projects simply because I asked.  Unless you’re dealing with an artist under a record label contract (the label owns the rights), if you explain how you want to use the song and why you want to use it they are often happy to grant permission when asked.
If they do say no, respect their decision and be gracious.

Thank you and enjoy!

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