What is copyright?

The concept of copyright has evolved within developed societies to protect the livelihoods of those members of the community who are gifted with original creativity, whether they are painters, writers, composers or any other type of creator.

Copyright is a special type of right, akin to a piece of property, in that it can be bought, sold and licensed. It protects a fixed original work and prevents others from using it without the creator’s permission; for example by:

  • copying it
  • distributing copies of it, whether free of charge or for sale;
  • renting or lending copies of it
  • performing, showing or playing your work in public;
  • making an adaptation of the work;
  • communicating the work to the public, e.g. by broadcasting or putting it on the internet

An original musical work is copyright-protected during the life of the composer(s) and for 70 years after their death. In the case of a co-written work (which includes a work where one or more individuals wrote the lyrics and one or more individuals composed the music ), copyright subsists until 70 years from the end of the calendar years in which the last known living composer dies.

In the case of a co-authored work (one produced by the collaboration of the composer of the music and the author of the lyrics, where the music and text are created in order to be used together), copyright in both the lyrics and the music (whether used separately or together) subsists until 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last of the creators dies.

Copyright also exists in adaptations of musical works. So, for example, the printed edition of a song for voice and keyboard may include several different copyrights: of the composer and the author for the joint musical composition; of the lyrics and the music if both consist of original works, separately from the integrated whole; of the authorised arranger (if any) for the keyboard version from the composer’s original; of the editor in the case of an edition of a non-copyright work, and of the publisher who makes the printed image . Furthermore, any one of these copyrights can outlive the others, and in order for the work to be in the public domain every one of these copyrights must have expired..

Copyright in the typographical arrangement of a published edition expires at the end of the period of 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the edition was first published.

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 usually have to pay the costs of the legal action as well. In the case of a dispute being litigated in court, the latter can easily run into five figures or more. So, in many cases, the legal costs of taking action will far exceed the likely recovery in the event of success.

Legal sanctions may, therefore, not be a real solution to day-to-day practicalities. However, illegal copying remains widespread. It discourages creativity and investment by music publishers, and with advances in technology making copying easier and easier, it is something that has adversely affected many creators and copyright owners. They may be losing revenue and/or losing control over how their creations are being used. On the other hand, many of those who offend are minor infringers, do not know that they are in violation of the law, and are copying for very limited personal reasons.

By working together with music publishers and relevant bodies, licences have been introduced to not only ensure that works can be used in the course of education without infringing copyright and allowing easier to access music but that music publishers and the writers and composers that they represent are fairly paid for the use of their copyrighted works.