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Copyright and printed music – UK IPO office explains key points

UK Intellectual property office has published notice about copyright in printed music. This Notice is aimed at individuals or groups who may wish to reproduce printed music in some way.

There are several components of printed music that may be protected by copyright:

  • the music itself may be protected as a musical work;
  • any lyrics may be protected as a literary work; and
  • copyright in the typographical arrangement of a published edition may belong to the publisher of the work.

If the work is protected by any (or all) of these copyrights, the permissions of the copyright owner(s) is required before the music can be copied. As part of their exclusive rights to control specific uses made of their work, the copyright owner(s) is entitled to charge for giving permission to someone to copy their work, usually through a licence.

There may be a composer, lyricist, arranger and music publisher owning rights in the printed music. The copyright in the works and how they may be licensed may be specified on the printed copy. In the case of a commissioned work, copyright will belong to the creator unless otherwise agreed in writing. Copyright in printed music created in the course of a person’s employment will belong to the employer unless the employment contract states differently. Composers may have assigned (transferred) their copyright to the publisher by contract.

In the UK, copyright in the musical work and the literary work (if relevant) will last for the life of the creator, plus 70 years. If the work was created jointly, it will last for 70 years after the death of the last surviving creator. If the work is unpublished, copyright will last for 70 years after the death of the creator OR until 2039, whichever is later. For example, if you find an unpublished piece of instrumental music in an archive and the creator died in 1853, copyright would last until 2039. However, if the creator died in 2015, copyright would last until the end of 2085. The typographical arrangement of a published edition lasts for 25 years from first publication.

If the work is protected by copyright, there are exceptions in copyright legislation which allow for copying of printed music in certain circumstances without permission. These include copyright exceptions for research and private study; criticism, review and quotation; parody, caricature and pastiche; and education. These exceptions are restricted as ‘fair dealing’ so no more of the work should be used than is necessary. There is also a copyright exception to assist a person with a disability (if an accessible copy is not already commercially available), such as producing large print or braille editions.

Printed music is considered an orphan work if you do not know who a right holder is, or you cannot find them or whoever inherited their copyright. The IPO runs a licensing scheme for orphan works: if you have completed a diligent search for the right holder, you can apply for a licence with an application fee. The IPO will check the diligent search and decide whether to grant you a licence, which can last for up to 7 years, is limited to use in the UK and is non-exclusive.