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Home > Articles > Copyright and Conscience — Let’s Talk…

Copyright and Conscience — Let’s Talk…


     When you purchase copyrighted music, you do not own it. You own a physical representation of it and the right to perform it presuming that sufficient copies have been purchased for all musicians performing it.


     If the music isn’t copyrighted, it’s in “the public domain,” meaning that no one has a legal right to claim the art and it’s free to all. If music is public domain (PD) it can be freely used/copied/arranged but credit should still be given such as the source, original artist, dates, etc.


     Following are some common questions church musicians ask about copyright and the answers provided by Philip L. Roberts (GIA Publications, Inc.)


How can you tell if a piece of music is public domain?

     Copyright laws vary by country. For the United States, it’s somewhat convoluted, so pay attention…


Any work first published before 1923 is in the public domain. For example, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.1 is public domain in the United States, since it was published in 1912.


Any work first published from 1923 to 1977 is subject to a 95-year term of copyright. Therefore, in 2019 the copyright will expire for music published in 1923 that has not had its copyright renewed.


Any work first published 1978 and later is subject to a term of life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. As an example, I have an arrangement that was published by Jeffers Handbell Supply in 2007. It will fall into public domain 70 years after my death.


     If in doubt, an excellent website to help answer any additional questions is the Public Domain Information Project website, found at


How do I determine who owns the copyright?

     Contact the publisher listed at bottom of the music. Even if the copyright date is 1922 or older, you’ll need to check with the publisher since the copyright may have been renewed. If you’re having trouble locating a publisher, because they may not longer be in existence, contact the Music Publisher’s Association ( They may be able to provide you with current and accurate information.


Can I copy music that’s permanently out of print (POP)?

     No. The copyright holder still owns intellectual property. Usually, publishers will require a small fee per copy with a minimum charge of $20. You’ll then be able to make your own legal copies. However, you might be required by the copyright holder to destroy them after the performance or the right to use them may have a definite time limit.


My church (or group) is making a handbell CD to sell as a fund raiser. Do I need to get a mechanical license?

     Yes. This information is readily available on publisher’s website and, in most cases, can be handled online. The U. S. Mechanical Fee is set at .091 / CD (0.15 per song, per copy for videos). So, if you include a copyrighted piece of music on a CD and you produce 1000 CDs, your cost would be $91.00 for that title. NOTE: Some agencies, such as Harry Fox, may charge an administration or processing fee in addition to the cost of the license. Also, know that many publishers have a minimum charge on all mechanical licenses.


     Here are three important aspects to understand about the copyrighted works.

        1. It is the contract, not the name on the copyright notice, that specifies the artist’s rights. The copyright notice does not offer any information regarding the agreement between the publisher and the artist.

        2. Once an artist signs a standard contract with a publisher they no longer own that work. The publisher then acts as an agent and pays royalties to the artist or to the artist’s estate or designated heirs for the entire length of the copyright

        3. Copyrights are a publisher’s assets. Successful publishers actively promote their assets. They are equipped to conduct professional marketing activity and also license these assets to other publishers on many occasions.


Do I need to have my music published to be protected under the copyright law?

     No. The copyright law is clear on this: In order to secure the copyright for your original work, you don’t have to do anything beyond create the work itself. As of April 1, 1989, the copyright law extends a copyright to your original work whether you register it with the copyright office or leave it tucked away in a drawer.


     However, it’s in your best interest to register the work, since you will have a better chance of winning damages in court against whoever you believe stole your property. When you do register a work with the copyright office, it becomes a matter of public record and a copy of it is automatically sent to the Library of Congress. Publishers register their material with the Library of Congress for this very reason.


Can I use the copyright notice (©) even if I haven’t registered my music?

     Yes. The copyright notice (©) is familiar to almost everyone and in reality, one can put it on a work without the need to register it with the government. Thus, if you are sending an original manuscript to a publisher, you can -- and should -- include the copyright notice. However, you won’t be surrendering your rights in court for not having done so.


     When you use the notice, it is important that it features three elements:

        1. The symbol © and/or the word “Copyright”

        2. The year

        3. Your name

        Example: Copyright © 2016 John Smith.


     Perhaps the most important and valuable reason to include a copyright notice is to prevent any future court defendant from claiming so-called “innocent infringement,” meaning they did not knowingly steal your work. Innocent infringement is still infringement; they can still lose the case and you can still be awarded damages, but the statutory amount of those damages may be substantially reduced.


What about YouTube and media sharing sites?

     Technically, it is illegal to upload any copyrighted material on YouTube (or similar video uploading/sharing sites) without obtaining permission from the copyright holder or administrator. However, many publishers grant gratis permission to post a YouTube video of a soloist’s or ensemble’s live performance of their titles, provided it is used for noncommercial purposes. But please follow the common courtesy of listing a citation either in the video or in the YouTube text field that includes the title of the piece, the name of the composer and/or author, and the copyright notice, along with the phrase “Used with permission.” Many publishers ask that the video be removed after one year has passed since the original posting.


     Please also do one additional courtesy of emailing the YouTube link to publisher and include the following information for their records:

        • Title and duration of the work

        • Name of the soloist or ensemble

        • Date of the live performance

        • List of all titles included in the performance from which the clip is taken.


I can copy my music legally since my church has both CCLI and OneLicense, right?

     That depends. These licenses cover your copying activities that assist with congregational singing, including computer projections, songsheets, bulletin inserts, recording your service and more. They do not allow you to copy choral anthems, organ and piano scores, instrumental music or handbell music. These licenses have a narrow focus on music and material designed for congregational use only.


For the most concise and thorough information pertaining to copyright visit


     In Conclusion:



     Please remember, we’re using someone else’s creative ideas and imagination. Treat it as though it’s on loan to you but add your own interpretation. Realize that artists yearn for their music to be performed and enjoyed. Publishers are the means by which this music becomes readily available to all. We should always strive to play it as skillfully as we can. Honor the artist. Honor the music. Honor the law.




Philip L. Roberts is the Editorial Production Manager for GIA Publications, Inc. and leads an editorial staff of 15. He is a past national board member of the Handbells Musicians of America. Phil has over 35 years of choral and handbell conducting experience.