The 6 Legal Rights of Copyright Holders as Explained by Abbie Betinis

We recently had the pleasure of attending Chorus America's webinar with composer and publisher Abbie Betinis on the topic of "Permissions and Licensing" for choirs – a great general resource for helping choirs get acquainted with this topic. Here is a summary of what we have learned.

The 6 Legal Rights of Copyright Holders

  1. Right to Distribute
    • Only the copyright owner or someone they authorize may share distribute a copyrighted.
    • License is included with purchase. To distribute more, you need to legally obtain more.
  2. Right to Reproduce
    • Sheet Music
    • Lyrics - By default the copyright owner is the owner of the lyrics.  If published before 1923, those lyrics are in public domain and you can use it how you’d like.  If not, you need to ask for print license to reproduce lyrics in program book.
    • Audio Recordings - If the choir has recorded an album and plans to sell it, ownership is shared between the sound recording owner (artist or label) and the owner of the composition. You should obtain a mechanical license with is easy and inexpensive to obtain.
    • Video - If you want to publicly post a video of your piece being performed, ownership is shared by the sound recording owner, the owner of the composition, and the owner of the video images. Note: You will need a synchronization license and you should always list the name of the composers and arrangers on every public video.
  3. Right to Perform in Public - this includes performing music in public either live or previously recorded but experienced live over the radio, through broadcast or cable TV, over loudspeakers or venues; audio systems (non-dramatic works). You will need a Public Performance License for music under copyright which is managed by the Performing Rights Organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC. For dramatic works, you will need a Grand Rights License.
  4. Right to Create Derivative Works - to prepare or authorize someone else to create an adaptation of a copyrighted work. You will need a license to Create a Derivative Work.
  5. Right to Display in Public - to show visual copy of the work publicly such as sheet music scrolling on YouTube or printed. This requires a Display License.
  6. Right to Transmit Digitally - for sound recordings to perform the copyrighted work publicly by digital audio transmission. This requires a Digital Performance Statutory License.


Tips for Success:

  1. If you have lyrics in a program, always name author and obtain their permission. If reprinting text digitally, you must get a license and author can ask whatever fee they want.
  2. The internet always assumes that copyright is for a singer/songwriter, not a chorus or orchestra. If you’re not a singer/songwriter, the internet assumes you’re a “cover artist” which means you do not own the underwrite for the score.
  3. Be careful of the terms and conditions on any “do it yourself” platforms to publish.
  4. Always buy the appropriate amount of sheet music copies for your chorus. To distribute more, you need to legally obtain more copies.
  5. Obtain the appropriate licenses as needed for each of the six legal rights as a copyright holder.
  6. When in doubt, always give credit to the composers, arrangers and lyricists and also obtain their permission for use in advance. 

To learn more about the ins and outs of permissions and licensing for choir directors, view the full webinar online at Chorus America's Online Learning page. (Note: Must be a Chorus America member to access.)

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About the Author

Sabrina Nikolov

Sabrina was classically trained on the piano when she started taking lessons at the age of 8. She pursued her musical talent further and performed in college. Sabrina still considers playing the piano one of her greatest passions, although she’ll admit it's more of a hobby at the moment. In addition to the piano, Sabrina started singing at a young age and she was a member of the Chorale during her university years. With her college choir, she proudly performed in Italy.

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