Copy Right Laws... Simplified

Copyright is confusing. You know you break the law but just how badly and what are the consequences of doing so? You don’t want to break the law but how do you avoid doing so? What’s allowed, what’s not? 

Article 1

Copyright is confusing. You know you break the law but just how badly and what are the consequences of doing so? You don’t want to break the law but how do you avoid doing so? What’s allowed, what’s not?

We will dive into these and other similar questions in a small series of articles intended to help you be more informed on what copyright laws mean for your teaching. Articles will be as concise as possible with some excerpts from articles, websites, and the copyright law itself. Links will be provided but we will guide you to the portions we would recommend you read and we strongly encourage you to follow the links as the information there will be more comprehensive than what we will provide in the article.

Let’s get started!

Copyright: the big and heavy definition put out by MTNA: “Federal law provides copyright protection in “musical works, including any accompanying words.” Musical works include original compositions, original arrangements, new arrangements of the composition, lyrics, and sound recordings. The rights given to a copyright holder include the exclusive rights to reproduce the copyrighted works (i.e., to make copies), to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted music, to sell, rent, lend or transfer ownership of copies, and to perform the copyrighted musical work publicly or by means of an audio transmission.”

What a legal mouthful! Allow me to rephrase: Copyright covers the music and lyrics to a song and gives the creator all the rights of use and reproduction of any sort to the creator exclusively. You cannot legally copy, arrange, sell or lend your copy of the music. You cannot perform, record or transmit the work without permission. Owning the music allows you to perform privately but not necessarily to video record and share on (more on this later). Owning the music does not allow you to make copies. Violation of copyright can cost you $750 to $150,000 depending on the infringement.

Some will justify copies of music they have purchased by saying, ‘I own the music so I can do whatever I want with it.’ but this is not actually the case. “One of the most important rights conveyed by a copyright is the exclusive right to reproduce the musical work. When you purchase a song…you do not purchase the right to make copies of that song.” This is how a creator of a piece of art is allowed to provide for themselves, by selling once, twice and every time it is wanted.

For more Q&A on Copyright, follow the link below and read the section: MTNA Copyright Guidelines for Music Teachers


             Additional Source Reading:   

             Sections 101 – 103 and 106 (Not 106A.)


Article 2

You find music on the internet and because it’s posted online it’s fair game to do what you want with it right? Not quite. “Please assume that anything that appears on the internet is protected by copyright unless you receive explicit permission from the owner to make copies of the work.” Two terms you need to become well acquainted with are: Public Domain and Fair Use.

“The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright…There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • The copyright has expired

  • The copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules

  • The copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or

  • Copyright law does not protect this type of work”

To learn more about the public domain and how each of these four ways work, please read the page from this link:

For musical works that have not entered into the public domain there is a limited exemption to the copyright laws called fair use. Fair use allows for “a limited right of copying without the permission of the copyright holder for educational purposes...It does not allow unlimited copying of copyright works by music teachers.” Copying rules/guidelines will be addressed in our next article.

Four Factors to evaluate Fair Use:

  • Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

  • Nature of the copyrighted work

  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

  • Effect of the use upon the potential marked for or value of the copyrighted work

An educational purpose does not automatically make a use fair. Fair use vs. infringement is not always clear or easily defined so evaluating your intent of use through those 4 steps should be your first step when copying music.

For more specific scenarios relating to the public domain and fair use please read the 2nd section: Public Domain and Fair Use from this site:

Use this site to help you evaluate whether your use would be considered fair use:

Lastly, visit this site to search cases where fair use was claimed:


Article 3

In the last article we learned about Fair Use, which allows for “a limited right of copying without the permission of the copyright holder for educational purposes...It does not allow unlimited copying of copyright works by music teachers.” So what exactly can you copy and/or use in an educational setting and how much?

“The guidelines generally allow for classroom distribution of fragments of copyrighted works or a single copy of a recording for educational purposes…You can rearrange, edit, or simplify a copyrighted work for educational purposes, provided you do not change “the fundamental character” of the composition or alter or add lyrics. For more significant alterations, you must contact the publisher in advance for permission.” You may not copy a performable unit even for educational use.

As a general rule, copying a fragment of copyrighted works under the fair use exemption allows copying and distributing 10% or less of a work. There also may only be enough copies made for one per pupil – no extras. One thing to note, however, is that even if you have a book of music and one piece only constitutes 10% of the book, that does not justify fair use. You cannot make copies of the full piece, “you would have to provide a small enough amount of the whole work that it would not affect a potential sale of that work.”

Section 110 also allows for teachers to display in the classroom any materials that have been legally obtained. An example of display in the classroom would be a powerpoint presentation.

  1. I have two students that are playing a duet. May I make a copy of the sheet music for the second student?

  2. No. If two students are to perform a duet of copyrighted music, each would have to purchase sheet music. The same is true for accompanists. It would be a copyright violation to copy sheet music for one of the students.

Read section: Educational Use of Copyrighted Music from the link below for more copying scenarios such as page turning and if a student forgot their sheet music for a recital.

Section 110:

Other source used:


Article 4

Concerts; performances; recitals. That’s where all the instruction, practice, hard work, and talent get to be displayed. It’s a big element of musical education, but just as owning a piece of music does not allow for copying, “One of the rights held by a copyright owner of a musical work is the exclusive right to perform the work in public.” Permission to perform “is typically obtained by purchasing a music license from the three primary music licensing organizations of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Please note that a music license from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC is only required for public performance of music. Music performed in a private residence, during an educational lesson in a private studio, or as part of a private recital involving a selected group of students does not constitute a public performance. Therefore, recitals by a music instructor’s students for a select group of family and friends would not constitute a public performance and would not require a music license.”

Is a music license needed for music recitals in schools?
No. If no admission fees are charged or if all proceeds from admission fees go to charitable or educational purposes, then musical performances by students or teachers, including performances by student bands and orchestras, may take place without a license or permission.

Would a school band playing at halftime during a high school football game require a license to perform a song?
Yes. This type of performance would not be covered by the school concert exemption. Even if no fee was charged to attend the football game, the exemption would not apply because the band’s performance would not be classified as a student concert.

You’ve worked so hard to prepare for this performance it has to be documented! Yet wait, did you know that recording can also be considered a form of copying? “The taping of the music raises the question as to whether permission of the copyright holder is required since the musical work is being copied. It has been recognized that a music instructor may make a single copy of a recording of performances by students for the purpose of evaluation or rehearsal. That copy may be retained by the teacher. However, no more than a single copy may be made and retained. If multiple copies of the performance are made, the permission of the copyright holder would be required.”

May parents videotape their children’s piano recital without a license?
Yes, as long as the videotaping is done for private purposes only and is not distributed outside of the immediate family. If a parent were to make copies of the videotape and attempt to sell or distribute them beyond the immediate family, there could be a copyright violation.

Section: Recitals and Recordings


Article 5

The internet has grown so much in such a short span of time. There are so many outlets for people to broadcast to the world who they are. When many people have been “discovered” this way it’s tempting to want to showcase your talents too. Especially when you totally crushed that new song that came out that everyone loves. You will evaluate that choice better now though because you have learned that “The rights given to a copyright holder include the exclusive rights to reproduce the copyrighted works (i.e., to make copies), to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted music, to sell, rent, lend or transfer ownership of copies, and to perform the copyrighted musical work publicly or by means of an audio transmission.”

If you want to post a video of yourself or a student (even for instructional purposes), it’s best to make sure that the music being performed is either in the public domain or permission has been given by the copyright holder. Otherwise you may find yourself with a cease and desist letter and/or face penalties of copyright infringement.

Additionally, “A song writer or publisher holding a copyright possesses a bundle of rights.  One of those rights is referred to as synchronization rights.  Basically, it refers to the right to allow the music to be synchronized with a visual image.  For example, when music is used in the background of a television show or film, or placed on a music video, the creator of that video or film must receive the permission of the copyright holder of the music.  Typically, that permission is given through a synchronization license agreement.”

Please read section: YouTube from the site below


Article 6

You know that saying, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission”? That may work in various areas in life, but “In situations where a desired educational use falls outside of the available exemptions, teachers must request permission.” Who do you contact for permission? Again, it depends. For a performance license, check in with the relevant performing rights organization. For recording rights, you’ll need that license from the Harry Fox Agency. For print material, such as sheet music, you must deal with individual print publishers.”

Will copyright owners seriously go after teachers and schools that are in violation of copyright law? “We do send cease-and-desist letters on behalf of our members, which we have to a number of school districts and teachers,” says the MPA’s Keiser. In such situations, “Our general counsel sends a letter, generally copying the superintendent of schools. The fines can be exorbitant. We have found that boards of education, principals, and superintendents of schools are very sensitive to liability issues.”

Indeed, penalties for infringement in simple cases can run $750–$30,000. More serious infringements can mean fines up to $250,000 and up to five years’ imprisonment. 
Penalties aside, teachers should be setting the right example for their students when it comes to the use of copyrighted material.

“Even beyond what a teacher is saying, what a teacher is doing and why a teacher is doing certain things can be significant to students understanding what you can and can’t do under copyright,” says Kasunic. “I don’t think it’s possible for all sorts of teachers to become copyright experts and actually provide the full scope of the information. But certainly [they can make students] aware that copyright is a real issue.”  Adds Kendrick: “I would hope that the educators and parents and society in general would find a way to again recognize the value of creative effort in entertainment and cultural enrichment. Anything that the schools can do to help that would be great.”

I couldn’t have phrased that any better. That is truly the essence of what these articles have been about. Reading these series of articles and following the links has not made you an expert, but I truly hope that it has helped you become more informed on this issue and has given you a resolve to do better and to set the tone in your area/s of instruction. Please be a good example to your students and take on that responsibility to teach them what you can about the law and encourage them to follow it.  Thanks for joining us in this effort!

One last link to follow for more information on where to obtain permission please visit the site below and read the section: ‘Ask for Permission’ and ‘Licensing Resources’ below that.



this is the best site for questions and answers


Sections of the Copyright Act:



Fair Use (also click on “more information on fair use” and the “search cases”)

Public Domain

is in the public domain, then it is not protected by intellectual property laws (copyright, trademark, or patent laws)—which means it’s free for you to use without permission.

Copy-free Zone program


Teachers must be conscious of six different types of copyright uses in the classroom: reproducing, recording, preparing derivative works (such as a new arrangement), distribution, performance, and display. Each of these uses can raise different points of law and different methods for licensing copyrighted works, when necessary. Here’s a glimpse at how the law applies to each type of use.

Deciphering ‘Fair Use’



Derivative Works




Ask For Permission (includes what do I do when it is out of print)

Copyright FAQ

When Can I Photocopy?

When can I photocopy? This question is asked every day by music educators nationwide. Most music educators want to respect the rights of copyright owners, but are sometimes confused as to when it is permissible to legally reproduce a copyrighted work. The following situations are based on the copyright law of 1976, and list what you can do without having secured prior permission:

  1. Emergency copying to replace purchased copies which for any reason are not available for an imminent performance, provided they are replaced with purchased copies.

  2. For academic purposes other than performance, multiple copies of excerpts of works may be made, provided that the excerpts do not comprise a part of the whole which would constitute a performable unit such as a section, movement or aria but in no case more that 10% of the whole work. The number of copies shall not exceed one copy per pupil.

  3. Printed copies which have been purchased may be edited or simplified, provided that the fundamental character of the work is not distorted or the lyrics, if any, altered or lyrics added if none exist.

  4. A single copy of recordings of performance by students may be made for evaluation or rehearsal purposes and may be retained by the educational institution or individual teacher.

  5. A single copy of a sound recording (such as a tape, disc or cassette) of copyrighted music may be made from sound recordings owned by an educational institution or an individual teacher for the purpose of constructing aural exercises or examinations and may be retained by the educational institution or individual teacher. (This pertains only to the copyright of the music itself and not to any copyright which may exist in the sound recording.)

When May I Not Photocopy?

The following are expressly prohibited:

  • Copying to avoid purchase

  • Copying music for any kind of performance, with the following emergency exception:

  • Making a copy of a lost part in an emergency, if it is replaced with a purchased part in due course

  • Copying without including copyright notice

  • Copying to create anthologies or compilations

  • Reproducing material designed to be consumable, such as workbooks, standardized tests and answer sheets

  • Charging customers beyond the actual cost involved in making copies as permitted.

For more information, see The United States Copyright Law - A Practical Outline

Copyright ultimately means that no one but the copyright owner has the right to copy without permission.

Steve France