Standard disclaimer first, the following information is for educational purposes only and shouldn’t be interpreted as legal advice. Not to mention that the information I write might just very well be dated before I even post it, let alone by the time you may be reading this. Caveat emptor!
If you’re a composer, you may be wondering if you should copyright your music. A “copyright” is a legal term that protects the owner of a creative work to control the broadcasting, performance, publication, or recording of that work. So if you compose a piece of music, someone else can’t come along and publish that work without your permission, or claim that they were the composer of your music. For composers, copyrighting your music is essential to legally protect your work from theft.
In the United States, copyright registration is handled by the U. S. Copyright Office, but you don’t need to register your work in order to enjoy the copyright protection. The moment your work is fixed in a tangible form (such as sheet music or compact disc recording) your composition is legally copyrighted. Registration with the Copyright Office creates a record that is invaluable in the case of litigation, however it’s completely voluntary and your work technically is legally protected simply by putting your name on your work, along with a copyright symbol and the year (e.g., © 2011 by David Wilken). By the way, the default key combination for the copyright symbol (©) is the “option” key plus the letter “g.”
Of interest to many musicians, not just composers, is what constitutes “fair use.” Using someone else’s work in a limited way for educational or review purposes, for example, is one example of fair use. So you can legally reproduce images, text, or musical excerpts for your blog post, provided you don’t reproduce an extensive amount (how much is too much seems to be a gray area). You cannot, however, legally reproduce a work that is no longer available. So-called “orphaned” works are still copyrighted, even if now out of print, in spite of what you may see on around online. So technically, it’s still illegal for you to copy that sheet music for your friend who can no longer buy it from the publisher. Or for you to download an MP3 of that CD that’s no longer available.
When creating an arrangement of someone else’s music it is necessary to obtain permission to perform your adaptation, unless the work is in the public domain. Creative works completed prior to 1922 (to the best of my understanding at this time) are automatically considered public domain. The U.S. Copyright Office will search their records and let you know if a work falls in the public domain, for a fee. Specific publications of public domain music may be copyrighted for the graphical representation (sheet music), so it’s not legal for you to photocopy and distribute, but you can put together your own version of the sheet music freely.
Performance rights are one other area where many musicians misunderstand the copyright laws. Even if you legally purchased the sheet music you may not necessarily legally perform or record that work without paying royalties. Generally speaking, professional and student musicians don’t need to worry much about this as it is usually taken care of by the venue. Most schools, clubs, concert halls, etc. have agreements with organizations such as ASCAP and BMI to pay royalties to copyright holders for performance rights. The Harry Fox Agency similarly handles the recording rights if you want to record a piece of music for your album. Simply owning the music, however, doesn’t give you the legal right to perform that work publicly without taking the effort to pay royalties to the copyright owners.
Copyright law gets pretty complicated very quickly, so if you’ve got a copyright question you should consult with someone who is more expert than I can claim to be. Another good resource to get started would be this FAQ posted on the Trombone Forum on copyright. As I mentioned above, the information I’ve posted here may be out of date by the time you read it, or it just might be plain wrong anyway. If you spot something you know to be incorrect or know of something to add, please leave your comment below and I’ll update this information.