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If someone composes a piece of music, it belongs to them. If there's any money to be made from it, that money is theirs. This is why it's illegal to photocopy pieces from a music book - the composer depends for his living on you going out and buying the music for yourself, and if you cheat by using a photocopier you are, in effect, stealing something from him. Of course the music shop and the music publisher get their cut too, but again they need an income from sheet music or why would they bother to print it and sell it? If we all ignored the rules about "copyright" the music business would collapse and we'd soon find ourselves without any sheet music at all.
If you compose a completely original piece of music then it is your own property - you own the copyright, in other words. All you have to do is make sure you can prove that you wrote the thing on such and such a date. Traditionally there are two methods of doing this. One is to seal a copy in an envelope and post it to yourself preferably by registered mail. When it arrives, keep it unopened in a safe place complete with its date-stamp. The second is to have a couple of copies signed and dated by someone reputable (bank manager, vicar, head teacher etc.) and keep those safely so that if there is ever any question of the music's provenance you have some tangible evidence. If it's a song, you need to be sure that you have used words that are "in the public domain". Poetry written in the last eighty or ninety years is usually copyright itself, in which case you may not use it without obtaining permission from the copyright owner - probably the publisher of the book you got it from.
Arranging existing music is fraught with difficulties. To put it very simply (and this is indeed a gross simplification) until the composer has been dead for seventy years his music is copyright and you may not make a written arrangement of it without permission. You are not supposed to make an unwritten arrangement either (i.e. keeping it in your head and playing by rote), but in practice this is unlikely to be a problem. Copyright owners - usually music publishers - will often give you permission to arrange their music if you write and ask, especially if you offer (a) to use the arrangement only in performances you give yourself, and (b) not to sell or disseminate it to anyone else. Sometimes this permission may be given free of charge, and sometimes you have to pay. For instance we recently paid a publisher 47 for permission to make and use an arrangement of a Cole Porter song; on the other hand we have paid as little as 10 for other pieces.
Often it's hard to find out who the copyright owner is. We recommend that you purchase a copy of the Music Education Yearbook and/or the Music Yearbook, both published by Rhinegold. Here you will find a host of useful information including names and addresses of music publishers, and of the Performing Right Society, the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society and the Music Publishers' Association. We have found the last one to be extremely helpful in questions of copyright ownership, and they also publish a useful booklet on the rules of copyright which you should certainly obtain and study - it's free.
You are very unlikely to be given permission to arrange music by modern "serious" composers. Older composers are fair game, however.
Take Handel, for example. His music itself, and the words, are "in the public domain" because he's been dead so long. You may make whatever arrangements and alterations you see fit without asking anyone. You can even publish them (i.e. make copies and lend or sell them) if you wish. However, a copyright may still exist on a publisher's edition of Handel's music. This means that if publishers Boosey & Hawkes issued their own edition of, say, Handel's Messiah (they don't, actually) you must not photocopy it - the printed image is their property and they own the copyright on it. This ought to be obvious. They paid for the editing, layout and printing so they are entitled to make from it any money there is to be made. If you wanted to use their edition, you should have bought it - anything else is cheating and illegal.
If, however, you create your own edition of Messiah with your own editorial content (phrase marks, loud and soft markings etc.), your own layout and perhaps your own special arrangement of the parts to make it more suitable for your own singers/players, and produce your own printed version by writing it out or printing it from a computer, then the copyright in that edition is yours - no problem. In doing so, there is nothing to stop you using the Boosey & Hawkes edition as your source, either. They may own the printed image, but they have no claim over Handel's crotchets and quavers (unless, that is, their own editor has added some, which is possible. He should have made this clear in the text though).
Finally - and this affects quite a lot of music teachers - there is the question of the ownership of music you write or arrange in the course of your job. I was once told by a County Music Adviser that an arrangement of a song I had made for the County Youth Choir belonged to the County Council because it was part of my job to direct the choir. This is ignorant rubbish from a man who is paid to know better. Just because I get permission to make an arrangement of a well-known song - Summertime by George Gershwin, say - it doesn't mean that I or the County Council or anyone else suddenly owns that song; Summertime continues to be the property of the original copyright owners, George Gershwin and his heirs. In fact, the copyright of my arrangement belongs to them as well, not to me.
If a teacher writes a completely original piece of music for his or her pupils to play (as many do, I am glad to say) then of course the copyright belongs to the teacher. The school or the education authority that employs the teacher can't claim ownership of the music unless they specifically instructed the teacher to write it, or unless composing music is written into the teacher's job-description - both highly unlikely.
Mechanical Copyright
There are two other "rights" you need to be aware of. One is the Mechanical Copyright - the right to make recordings and broadcasts of published works. These normally belong to the publisher. If you are lucky enough to be invited to sing or play on the radio, for instance, the owners of the mechanical copyright are entitled to a small payment. Fortunately the radio station will usually take care of this. If you want to make a tape recording of your school orchestra to sell to parents or at concerts, you don't need to ask permission beforehand except in the case of new works that have never been recorded before, but there will probably be a small fee to pay and you should contact the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society and ask them what to do. They're very helpful.
Performing Right
Performing Right is a bit more complicated. The copyright owner (sometimes the composer, sometimes the publisher) is entitled to a payment whenever his or her piece is performed. In most cases this is collected by the Performing Right Society whose advice you should seek and follow - you'll find them both helpful and very reasonable. In larger concert-halls the management may get you to fill in a form for the Performing Right Society, or you can send the Society a copy of the concert programme so they know what you've done. Frequently with young players the pieces are so short and the profits to be made from our concerts are so small that you may not even hear from them.
However, be very wary about performing stage musicals, or extracts from stage musicals. The performing right for these lies normally with the publishers, not the Performing Right Society, and they are very jealous of their rights. You must seek permission from them for every performance, and they will often ask for a fairly stiff fee. They may want to know the status of your performers (amateur, professional, students etc.), the size of the hall and the cost of the tickets. One is very well aware that up and down the country many school performances of musicals like Oliver, Grease, Fiddler on the Roof, Annie etc. are completely illegal, and sooner or later a school is going to find itself in hot water for bucking the system - and quite right, too. Why should we have free and unrestricted use of intellectual property that has taken months and even years of a composer's life and effort to produce? This also applies to operas and other "staged" works like Britten's Noye's Fludde.
This page adapted from the eBook "Training your young choir" by David Bramhall (Choirmaster Press).