Copyright, licensing and permissions - Part 2: Obtaining music

When your group decides to perform a piece of music there will be copyright laws, permissions and licenses to be aware of. Part 2 of our guidance looks at the first stage of this process – obtaining the sheet music.  

There are three different copyrights to be aware of for a piece of music:

  1. Musical: the copyright of the actual music (notes in a certain order). In the UK a piece of music stays in copyright for 70 years after the death of the creator.
  2. Literary: the copyright of the lyrics or libretto. The same 70-year rule applies to the lyricist.
  3. Typographical: the copyright of the published sheet music edition. Typographical copyright lasts for 25 years after the first publication of an edition.

If you are not sure who owns the copyright you can contact the Music Publishers Association

For more information see Part one: What is Copyright?

Contents:

  • Public domain music
  • Obtaining music from a legitimate source
  • Out of print music
  • Obtaining music from abroad
  • Arranging music
  • Copying music

 

Public domain music (music that is out of copyright) 

In the UK music is considered “out of copyright” 70 years after the death of the creators. This includes the composer, librettist/lyricist, and arranger. If music is out of copyright it might be available in the public domain for free (for example from the Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP) and Choral Public Domain Library).

 
Even if a piece of music is out of copyright, editions of its sheet music will often still be in copyright as the typographical copyright on an edition lasts for 25 years in the UK. For example, Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor is out of copyright and can be performed without incurring any royalty fees but the orchestral set of the symphony published by Bärenreiter in 2008 is in copyright and will be until 2033. This does not mean you cannot get the music elsewhere (e.g. IMSLP), it just means the publisher still controls the rights over their edition. 

Obtaining music from a legitimate source

Music that is in copyright should be obtained legally and from a legitimate source. We have detailed guidance on ‘How and where to source music’ but obtaining music legitimately normally means either: 

However you obtain music in copyright, you do not automatically have the right to perform or record the music too. There will be other permissions and licences required to do this, and fees will be payable to performing rights organisations like PRS for Music and PPL. See Part 4: Events and Part 5: Recording and distributing music for more details on the licences you will need to perform and record music.

Out of print music

If a piece you want to perform is out of print you should contact the relevant publisher and ask them to print you a copy (if you’re not sure who the publisher you can contact the Music Publishers Association). The publisher then should let you know within three weeks if they are able to supply a copy or will allow you to make copies for your group. The publisher may decide to attach conditions to this permission. If the publisher allows copies to be made a fee should be expected as the publisher will usually need to pay royalties to the copyright holder. 

Occasionally a publisher will refuse permission to reproduce the work. This may be because the work has been deliberately withdrawn by the composer or for copyright reasons. In these rare instances you will not be able to obtain a copy.

Obtaining music from abroad

A work may be out of copyright and freely available abroad but in copyright and strictly controlled by its copyright owner in the UK. Importing a freely available score from abroad is an infringement of the rights of the UK copyright holder. 

For example, the IMSLP archive of public domain music scores is hosted in Canada, where the copyright term for music is the creator’s life + 50 years. The UK copyright term is life + 70 years, so music by creators (e.g. Gerald Finzi) who died more than 50 but less than 70 years ago may be available on the archive, but should not be downloaded in the UK.

To protect yourself from any issues:

  • If you are able to hire the music you need from inside the UK, do
  • If you are hiring music from abroad that is in copyright in the UK check which edition you are hiring, where it originates, and its UK copyright status. 

If you are unsure about the copyright status of a particular edition in the UK then contact the Music Publishers Association.

Arranging music

Making an arrangement of a piece of music is fairly common practice among leisure-time music groups. By the letter of the law, you need permission from the copyright holder to make any changes to a piece of music. This applies to the music and lyric copyright and includes things like key changes, removing a verse, or repeating a chorus.

However, there is perhaps some common sense to be applied. Where the changes are minor you might decide that getting permission is an unnecessary administrative burden for you and the copyright holder/publisher.

The decision about what is a minor change is up to the arranger. A good question to ask yourself is, are you fundamentally changing the nature of the piece? If you are, then you should ask for permission. But if you are maintaining the original nature of the piece but making small adjustments to suit the piece to your group and get the best performance from your group, then they might be viewed as minor. If you do take this view you should, of course, make sure you pay PRS fees for any live performances. 

Examples of fundamental changes

  • Rescoring an entire piece to be played on a different instrument(s)
  • Adding a significant number of new instruments
  • Changing the style of the song – for example, a bluegrass version of a Delilah
  • A creative interpretation of a piece that changes its feel and style.

Examples of minor changes

  • Changing the voices from SATB to STB to suit the voices available
  • Octave or key changes to suit the instruments you have available
  • Removing or repeating a chorus or verse
  • Repeating a section and making some changes to make the repeat seamless
  • If you are missing an instrument, rescoring for an instrument you do have
  • Editing or simplifying technically challenging sections.

Another consideration is how you will use the arrangement. For example, even for minor changes, if you plan to use the arrangement beyond performance by your group (e.g. making it available to other groups) then seeking permission is a good idea. 

If you plan to make more significant/fundamental changes then you should get permission from the copyright holder, which you can do by contacting the publisher. If you do an internet search for the name of the publisher and ‘permissions’ then you will normally find an email address or online form to complete.

It can take some time so make sure you ask for permission well in advance of the performance (at least two months ideally). Sometimes permission will come with a condition – such as a limit on the number of performances or whether you can make a recording.

Copying music

Making copies of sheet music or lyrics can be a tempting option when running a music group, especially a large one! But in most situations you can’t do this if the music and/or published edition is in copyright. 

There are some situations in which a copy of a section of a work may be allowable – for example to facilitate a page turn. Read Part 3: Rehearsing music to find out more. 

 

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music does not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.