Sep 232015
 

Birthday.Song_In honor of today’s ruling by a federal judge, who lifted the copyright from “Happy Birthday to You” (read about it here), let’s talk copyright laws! Not fun, I know, but if you read all the way to the bottom, there is GOOD NEWS, I promise.

Let’s see how much you know about copyright laws for music in schools.

(Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, so I am only relating the information as I have researched it to the best of my ability.)

True or False:

  1. In a school classroom we can sing whatever song we want without worrying about the copyright.
  2. I can make copies of copyrighted songs for educational purposes.
  3. If my chorus or band performs copyrighted pieces at the local mall, I need to have a performance license.
  4. If my students perform copyrighted pieces in our gym, I need to have a performance license.
  5. I can make video or audio recordings of my concerts (where copyrighted pieces are performed) and sell them without a license.
  6. I can make a copy of a CD that the music department purchased for another teacher in my school.
  7. I must ask permission to change the lyrics or script for a copyrighted song or play.
  8. I can post a recording of my students singing or playing a copyrighted song on YouTube.
  9. Breaking copyright laws is no big deal.

Do the following songs have a copyright: yes or no?

  • Kookaburra
  • Yankee Doodle
  • Happy Birthday to You
  • Fifty Nifty United States
  • Your state song / your national anthem
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  • Feliz Navidad

Answers below:

  1. In a school classroom we can sing whatever song we want without worrying about the copyright.
    For the most part, yes, you can sing: not perform, not copy music, not make a video or audio recording. You can sing or play a recording of a copyrighted song in your classroom for educational reasons because it is covered under the “fair use” clause. (It’s called a “face-to-face teaching exemption”.) Be advised, though. You cannot even sing a copyrighted song in public if it is not covered in the “fair use” clause. (This is why the “Happy Birthday To You” song was not allowed to be sung in public – even in restaurants – until today, when the copyright was overturned in court. Read about it here.)
  2. I can make copies of copyrighted songs for educational purposes.
    No. Not octavos, not even lyric sheets. If you have purchased the choral copies and want to make lyric sheets, then you can possibly obtain permission from the publisher. But you need permission in writing. (Sometimes they will give you permission for free.) There are a few exceptions (read here), which include making copies of excerpts which do not exceed 10% of the whole piece or making emergency copies.
  3. If my chorus or band performs copyrighted pieces at the local mall, I need to have a performance license.
    Yes! Ask your school district if they have purchased a blanket performance license from ASCAP and/or BMI. (Read more here.) And… you need to have purchased the correct number of copies of music for the musicians. [Find out who owns the license to the song by typing in the name of the song on this website: musicservices.org. The performance licenses are issued by ASCAP (search here), BMI or SESAC. For instance, on this page, you can see that the music education performance cost is about $230/year. But you can fill out a form and ask them to call you.]
  4. If my students perform copyrighted pieces in our gym, I need to have a performance license.
    Yes! Same answer as above. The only exemption is the “face-to-face teaching exemption” of the “fair use” clause mentioned in #1.
  5. I can make video or audio recordings of my concerts (where copyrighted pieces are performed) and sell them without a license.
    No. You need a license if you make more than one copy. Parents can make one copy for themselves and teachers can make one personal copy, but even if you don’t charge for audio or video copies, you still need a license.
  6. I can make a copy of a CD that the music department purchased for another teacher in my school.
    No. The other teacher needs to purchase his/own copy of the CD.
  7. I must ask permission to change the lyrics or script for a copyrighted song or play.
    Yes. You may not change or add lyrics without permission. You may simplify, rearrange or edit copyrighted pieces for educational purposes, as long as it doesn’t change the “fundamental character” of the piece.
  8. I can post a recording of my students singing or playing a copyrighted song on YouTube.
    No. Unless you get permission. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
  9. Breaking copyright laws is no big deal.
    False. Copyright violations are subject to fines (between $750 and $150,000 – even $250,000 up to 5 years in jail for serious offenses). I doubt you want to pay that. And I doubt your school district wants to get involved in litigation.

Yes = copyrighted; No = public domain

Note: Anything composed before 1923 is in the public domain.

  • Kookaburra – yes (under Australian copyright law; the composer died in 1988)
  • Yankee Doodle – no (and neither is Yankee Doodle Boy)
  • Happy Birthday to You – As of today, not anymore! Read about it here.
  • Fifty Nifty United States – yes (published in 1961)
  • Your state song / your national anthem – Every state (in the U.S.) is different! Look up your state here. Most national anthems that I have run across are in the public domain. I have many of them posted here.
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town – yes* (© 1934, renewed in 1962)
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas – no
  • Feliz Navidad – yes* (© 1970)

*Read this list of popular Christmas songs and be surprised how many are copyrighted. I have lots of public domain Christmas songs posted here.


Here’s the GOOD NEWS: You can use public domain songs! For free! As much as you want!

Here are some resources:

  • My website! I have about 1,000 songs in the public domain. And I’m always adding more! Here is an alphabetic list. Also: I hereby grant you permission to save and reproduce the folk song images on my website. (You can’t do that with other collections of folk music. Their versions or arrangements are copyrighted.) I just ask that you give me credit whenever you reprint my versions of the folk songs. Just mentioning “bethsnotes.com” is sufficient. (And yes, I know that there are some websites out there that have completely copied and pasted entire posts of my website and claimed it as their own. Annoying.) Also, if you purchase membership-only material, I give you the rights to use that material (including making copies, performing and recording) with your classes today, tomorrow and forever. (Please just give me credit in the program notes or on copies you make.) I ask that you kindly do not make copies for other teachers to use for themselves or in their classrooms.
  • Check out websites such as ibiblio.org/mutopia and pdinfo.com for more public domain music.

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