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

Marked-up sheet music in a 3-ring binder and pencil

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 have authorized to share their content) may distribute their copyrighted material.
    • License is included with purchase. To distribute more copies, you need to legally obtain more.
  2. Right to Reproduce
    • Sheet music: "The copyright owner of a piece of sheet music owns the sole right to copy and distribute that sheet music including both the notes and words contained on it, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Copying sheet music either by photocopier, scanner or by hand, or copying out any individual part or voice from that music without the express permission of the copyright owner is a copyright law violation." (Source: Cindy Hill, LegalZoom)
    • Lyrics: By default, the copyright owner is the owner of the lyrics. If published in or before 1923, those lyrics are in public domain and you can use it however you’d like. If not, you need to ask for print license to reproduce lyrics in a 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, which 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) and through audio systems (for 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, and 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 on print, a Display License is required.
  6. Right to Transmit Digitally. To broadcast a sound recording or perform a copyrighted work publicly via digital audio transmission, a Digital Performance Statutory License is required.

Tips for Success:

  1. If you have lyrics in a program, always name the author and obtain their permission. If reprinting text digitally, you must obtain a license. The author reserves the right to declare whatever fee they want.
  2. The Internet always assumes that copyright is for a singer/songwriter, not a chorus or orchestra. If you are 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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