By Pam Phillips

The world of copyright can be intriguing, interesting, frustrating, complicated, and confusing, all at the same time. It also is something that impacts music teachers and directors every day. Following proper copyright usage assists the composers and arrangers in making a living from their craft. Those of us in the arts and responsible for educating future artists need to support our fellow creatives. My hope is that there will always be ways to make a living in music. We can be part of that circle and teach the students that art has value.

“Compositions, books, websites, and other artistic works of all kinds exist because people expressed their individual creativity and their thought processes to create these works. That is why it is called intellectual property. This is the ‘work’ of creators, including composers, and they all deserve to be paid for their work.” Copyright Handbook for Music Educators and Directors

What does a copyright owner control?

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or sound recordings.
  • The right to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.
  • The right to distribute copies or sound recordings of the copyrighted work to the public.
  • The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.
  • The right to display the copyrighted work publicly.
  • [For sound recordings] The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

The permission to use or reproduce a work is granted in different ways depending on its use. Each right controlled by the copyright owner must be considered when planning a new project. Music educators and directors are most commonly concerned with these situations:

  • Using printed music
  • Creating and using audio and video recordings
  • Performing in public
  • Uploading to the Internet
  • Downloading from the Internet
  • Arranging music


What is public domain?

In the U.S., a general rule of thumb is that if the piece was written or published from 1923 and on, it will still be under copyright. There are exceptions to this because copyright law continues to evolve. This applies to newly composed works, arrangements, and new editions of classics. For example, an edition of a Beethoven symphony that was published 20 years ago is protected just the same as a piece that was written two years ago.

Music written or published before 1923 is most likely now considered public domain. Public domain means that anyone can freely use that music—perform it, create derivative works (arrangements), include it in other collections, and so on. In order to do so, be sure your source material is public domain and that it’s not recent arrangement or edition of an older work.

How can I research the copyright status of a particular work?

  • Look for a copyright notice. If you find the name of a publisher, contact them with any inquiries.
  • Research online databases—, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC,, the Harry Fox Agency, and the Library of Congress.
  • Check the website of print music publishers and music retailers for copyright notices.
  • Review the dates of the composer’s life and composition itself.

Additional advice:

Here are some additional guidelines for United States copyright law that may be helpful.

  • Don’t trust the grapevine’s knowledge. There are great resources online and in print.
  • Laws vary between countries. The copyright laws in the country you live in will apply to you. Treaties establish international copyright law.
  • If what you are doing causes someone else to lose income, then it is most likely a copyright infringement.
  • Be wary of “free” music on the Internet. It may have been illegally scanned and posted.
  • Not everything on “public domain sheet music” sites, such as IMSLP, is public domain.
  • If you have any doubts, consult an intellectual property attorney. This article is not intended to provide legal advice; it is a guideline and intended to provide you with resources.

The content of this article is excerpted from Copyright Handbook for Music Educators and Directors by Pam Phillips and Andrew Surmani. For additional resources, see Music Publishing: The Complete Guide, by Steve Winogradsky. A two-page reference called “Copyright Clinic 2017” is also available at For the definitive law, visit and/or consult with an intellectual property attorney.

Pam-PhillipsPam Phillips has a broad background in arts management and production. Her career includes booking and producing concerts for professional artists as well as school groups. She has administered numerous music camps and planned national and international music tours. Pam has run teacher workshops throughout the United States and has presented at a variety of music conferences. ASTA chose her as their national conference coordinator for the 2007 convention in Detroit. She has served as an assistant teacher in the elementary string classroom. In her role as a music producer and editor she has worked on production of instructional DVDs and audio CDs as well hundreds of orchestra pieces and instructional books. Her current position as Managing Editor, Suzuki and String Acquisition for Alfred Music uses many aspects of this varied career. Pam has also been the project coordinator for Alfred Music’s revolutionary new series Sound Innovations for String Orchestra and Sound Innovations for Concert Band.