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Copyright Protected Sheet Music

Are you playing and performing music not written by yourself? If you are you may be in violation of copyright laws. Furthermore, royalties may be due! Even if you are making more than one or two copies for your own personal use it is called “distribution” and you could be in trouble if caught.

Copyright laws protect the person who owns the rights to a piece of music. It is generally enough that the owner puts a “C in the middle of a circle” to show that the music is copyrighted, but the absence of this familiar mark it does not mean the work is not copyrighted. (Recordings generally display a “P in the middle of a circle”.)

So who owns the rights? Generally it is the composer of the sheet music or piece. If it is a vocal piece the lyricist may also own a copyright on the lyrics. If however the composer is on the staff of a music publication company or a symphony, for example, it will likely be that the company owns the rights to a specific piece of music since the composer was paid by the company to produce the piece. If you perform the piece for other than personal enjoyment you’ll need to get permission, and possibly pay royalties, from the owner. The best place to start this process is with the publisher listed on the sheet music you want to perform. They will certainly either own rights themselves or know how to get you on the right path.

Let’s suppose, however, that a few people collaborate on a piece of music and want to share in the copyright and possible royalties. This quite often is seen as the case in a small band or successful group that composes their own music. It would be prudent to draw up an agreement describing who owns what rights if this fits your situation. The alternative would be to incorporate and decide who owns what share of the company. That way if one person leaves the other members can buy out his or her rights.

Basically the law is pretty simple. If you are performing for your personal enjoyment play away! If you are performing for profit or an audience you’d better check for possible copyright infringements. Also, contrary to popular opinion, performing for a non-profit charity event does not exempt you from copyright laws.

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