Exceptions to Music Copyright Laws

By Le Bach Pham
A teacher may copy a portion of a musical composition for educational purposes.
sheet music image by charles taylor from Fotolia.com

Copyright law protects most creative works. This includes musical compositions and sound recordings. However, there are some exceptions to the rule, known as "fair use" exceptions. There are specific fair use exceptions related to music copyright that pertain to educational uses, public domain rules, and public radio. It is also important to be aware of rules regarding expiration of copyright ownership.

Public Domain

Compositions not protected under copyright law are part of the public domain. This means these works are open to anybody to copy, reproduce, or rework, according to the Public Domain Information Project. Also, copyrights eventually expire, which means the owner will no longer have exclusive rights over the creative works. Some composers renounce their copyright either during their lifetime or upon death.

Expired Copyrights

Title 17 of the United States Code specifies how long copyright protection endures on creative works, including musical compositions. Copyright on works created after January 1, 1978 will expire 70 years after the death of the longest surviving author, according to the Public Domain Information Project. Copyright for works registered before January 1, 1978 will expire 95 years from the date of copyright registration.

Music Education

Music teachers and other educational workers are afforded some special privileges to use copyrighted musical material for educational purposes. However, the use of copyrighted musical material must follow specific guidelines, according to MENC. Reproduction of a piece of sheet music can contain up to 10 percent of a musical work for educational purposes. However, this 10 percent cannot constitute a single performable unit. Teachers may also create derivative works of copyrighted musical compositions for educational purposes. Additionally, the derivative work may not change "the fundamental character" of the original composition, according to MENC.

There are also specific rules for teacher use of sound recordings. Educators may record a student performance of copyrighted material one time for educational and archival purposes, according to MENC. A single copy of an aural exercise or test is also permissible.

Although most performances of copyrighted songs require licensing, teachers are provided special exemptions. A teacher may perform a copyrighted musical composition or play a song on CD as part of a class, according to MENC. However, performances of certain longer works such as an opera, ballet, or musical may require licensing from the copyright owner.


In most other types of creative works the exclusive right to perform a work belongs to the copyright owner. In sound recordings this is not the case, according to Intellectual Property by Deborah E. Bouchox. For example, if a radio station airs a song by artist A, which was composed by Artist B, there is no infringement upon Artist A or his or her record company. However, sound recordings only protect the arrangement or production of a song, while not the musical composition or its accompanying words. Therefore, the radio station may have infringed upon Artist B's copyright.