A music teacher’s guide to copyright law

teaching music 101If you are like most music teachers, then you’re in it “for the love.” The love of making music and of spreading its magic to others. So copyright law may not be the first thing you think of when designing your curriculum.

But it should be … or at least near the top of your list. Because if you break the law, you could face some seriously stiff penalties.

No, really … civil damages for a minor infringement can range from $750 to $30,000! And if an infringement results in criminal charges, you could serve five years in prison with fines of up to $250,000. Whoa!

intellectual property copyright stampBut before you break into a cold sweat, consider the following guidelines. These questions and answers can help you stay on the right side of the law. (You don’t look good in stripes anyway.)

What is a copyright?

In 1976, Congress passed the Copyright Act, which created federal laws that protect “musical works.” So when a creator copyrights her work, she is granted the exclusive right to: (1) make copies, (2) distribute copies for sale or for free, (3) create derivatives based on the original and (4) perform the work.

How long does a copyright last?

A copyright lasts for the life of the composer, plus another 70 years after his death. If the work was composed by more than one person, the copyright expires 70 years after the death of the last surviving composer.

If the piece of music was composed as a work-for-hire, the copyright expires 90 years after it was published or 120 years after it was created, whichever comes first. You should also know that the copyright is granted once the piece is composed, not when it is registered.

What is a “fair use”?

Music teachers may use copyright works without permission in limited circumstances. This is called “fair use for educational purposes.” You can claim “fair use” based on: (1) the purpose of your use, (2) the kind of musical work you’re using, (3) how much of the work you use, and (4) whether your use will affect the copyright holder’s profits.

In reality, the “Fair Use” exemption can be a little sticky because the laws are pretty loose. But if you stay aware of the following types of copyright use in the classroom, you’re less likely to be apprehended by federal agents in the middle of the night:

1 – Photocopies

The most common misuse is when music teachers photocopy sheet music for students. Even if you properly acquired one piece of sheet music, you can’t continuously make photocopies. In fact, fair use guidelines allow you to reproduce only 10 percent of a copyrighted work. Anything more requires a license from the music publisher.

The Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) can give you the contact information for sheet music publishers. Just go to or call (212) 327-4044.

2 – Recordings

Under the fair use guidelines, you can make one (1) recording of a concert of musical work for educational purposes. And if you have an archive of performances, then you may add that one copy to your archive without obtaining a license.

But … if you plan to make copies of the recording to distribute or sell, you must get what’s called a “compulsory license.” Contact the publisher directly if you plan to produce fewer than 500 copies. Or, if you have more than 500 copies, contact the Harry Fox Agency (, 212-834-0100).

Compulsory licenses allow you to copy and sell recorded performances of a copyrighted work. The license costs 9.1 cents for each song less than five minutes long. For songs longer than five minutes, the fee is 1.75 cents for each additional minute.

3 – Derivative Works

Copyright law allows you to rearrange, edit, or simplify a copyrighted work for educational purposes … as long as you don’t change “the fundamental character” of the composition or alter the lyrics.

If you plan to make significant changes, you must contact the publisher in advance for permission. Under the compulsory license, however, you can create a new arrangement of a composition for the purpose of recording that work for distribution.

4 – Performance

Sometimes, you may need to perform or play a song in class for educational purposes. This is okay according to fair use guidelines.

But if your students perform multiple songs in a concert, then you must get a “performance” license.

Three organizations exist to award performance licenses. They also collect licensing fees, and distribute those fees to the copyright holder(s):







5 – Display

Finally, Section 110 of the law allows you to display copyrighted work in the classroom—using a PowerPoint presentation, for example—provided you legally acquired the material. (At least this one is pretty simple!)

The Bottom Line

To be on the safe side, always evaluate your use of copyrighted work. Before using any sheet music or recording, carefully check that it falls under one of the Copyright Act’s specific exemptions.

When in doubt, contact the Music Publishers Association, the publisher of the material in question, or call a copyright attorney.

What experiences have you had dealing with copyright law? Are there any do’s or don’ts that you have learned?

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