Taken from the Spring 2003 (Issue 54) South West Newsletter

Idiot's Guide to Copyright  We suggest you right-click and "save target as" to copy this image.

Copyright enables composers to be paid for their work. It is the means by which those who make and own creative works (e.g. music and literature) can control who makes use of their work and ensure that the integrity and value of the work is respected.

Copyright legislation has evolved over the last 500 years to provide a balance between the interests of those who invest skills and intellectual effort, time and money in the creation of works on the one hand and those who want to use and enjoy those works on the other.

How do I know if a piece of music is protected by copyright?

This question must be asked in relation to the three separate elements to be found within printed music, namely the music itself, any words and the printed edition used:

The Music If the composer, writer, arranger or editor of the music is still alive or died within the last 70 years the music will still be in copyright.
The Words
If the author of the words is still alive or died within the last 70 years then the words will still be in copyright.
The Printed Edition
If the edition was printed within the last 25 years then the edition is still in copyright. This is so, regardless of whether either the words or the music contained within that edition are still in copyright or out of copyright.

Can I make copies of music I have bought?

No. Copying (whether by photocopying or by any other means) in order to evade hire or purchase will always be wrong. If copies are made in breach of copyright, then the copyright owner can sue for damages. The person or institution having to pay damages will also nearly always have to pay the costs of the legal action; the latter can easily run into five figures. A city authority, a county council, an independent school and a church choir amongst others have been sued by the Music Publishers Association Ltd in the High Court for ignoring the provisions of the Copyright Act.

I've tried buying extra copies but the music is out of print? Can I copy what I've got?

If a work appears to be out of print, any person or organisation wishing to obtain that work should give notice of this intention to the publisher. The publisher will, within 3 weeks, inform that person of the terms on which it is either able to supply it or will allow copies to be made. (If the publisher allows copies to be made, a fee should be expected, as they will usually have an obligation to pay the composer a royalty)

Can I make arrangements of original music?

If you wish to arrange music which is still in copyright you may only do so with the prior permission of the copyright owner with certain limited exceptions. There are a number of reasons why it is important to respect the rights of the copyright owner and seek permission before arranging music:

  • An illegal copy or arrangement deprives the composer of the music of the chance to earn income from his/her creative work
  • The publisher is deprived of the opportunity to recoup the investment made in the production of the original music
  • The publisher is unable to monitor the use and popularity of a particular work
  • The use of copyright music without permission is a form of theft that damages composers and publishers. It discourages composers, who will look to other ways of earning a living
  • It deters publishers from investing in the production of music and it denies them information about the use of music that would guide further investment decisions. A publisher may allow a work to go out of print believing that there is a lack of demand for that particular work when the opposite may in fact be true

For permission to arrange music published in the UK, the Music Publishers Association (MPA) can help to direct you to the copyright owner. You should provide as much information about the music as possible, including the title, composer and any arranger or editor. Also, if you have the original, the name of any publisher that you have for the work and the date of publication or copyright line (usually inside the front cover or at the bottom of the first page of the music).

The piece I want to use is part of a collection. Do I have to buy copies of the whole collection to be legal for this one piece? If the piece is not published separately, notice must be given to the publisher who may either offer to provide a separate publication on given terms or may allow copies to be made on payment of a fee.

I can't play the piece I want on the bells we have so I just want it in a different key - and I may have to leave out a few notes. Is that OK?

In many cases a composer may have no objection, but composers have a 'Moral Right' that their work should not be subjected to derogatory treatment. 'Treatment' is defined as 'any addition to, deletion from or alteration to or adaptation of the work, other than an arrangement or transcription of a musical work involving no more than a change of key or register'. If in doubt, ask.

This is all too hard - how can I avoid copyright altogether?

If you are an HRGB Member you could try the HRGB's Music for All scheme! This music is especially for handbell ringers and is copyright free - so you can photocopy it, transcribe it and re-write it as often as you like (provided it is for use of your own team).

Or of course, you could compose your own music - then it is your copyright and the law protects you against other people copying it or 'arranging' it without your permission!