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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Copyright Resources for Music: Copyright Basics

This guide will point you toward resources to help navigate the complex world of music copyright issues.


This guide, and the links contained herein, are in no way meant to provide legal advice. Copyright laws are complicated and there is often no clear right or wrong. This guide is only meant to lead you toward resources that can help you make choices concerning copyright. If you need any additional help finding copyright resources, ask a reference librarian, but for actual legal advice, please ask a lawyer!

You can also consult with the University's Copyright Librarian, Sara Benson,, or see her general guide to copyright.

Copyright Basics

Some Copyright Ground Rules

General Concepts

  • A work created today is protected under copyright as soon as it’s created and is protected for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years.
  • If more than one person created a work, they might be joint owners of a work.
  • When copyright expires, the work becomes public domain.
  • Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the tangible expression in a fixed medium of the idea can.
  • You may use any copyrighted material under the “fair use” doctrine, within fair use guidelines. (See "Fair Use")
  • If something looks copyrighted, assume it is.


  • With printed music and recorded music, there are seperate copyright issues concerning the work itself and the item (score, CD, digital file, etc.). The work itself is one thing and will have its own creator and dates and rights, while the item (score edition, CD, etc.) will also have rights associated with it. For example, a Mozart symphony may be in the public domain, but the score edition published last year is not.

Copyright Ownership

The Author is the Initial Owner

If you composed a song, you own the copyright. If you recorded your song, you own the copyright in the sound recording. For sound recordings it is important to remember that ownership can belong not just to the performer but also to others involved in the creation of the sound recording. However, the performer always has a copyright in the sound recording unless he/she assigns this right away by contract. 

Ownership Can Be Assigned or Transferred

Giving away the bundle of rights that constitute copyright is often called a grant. If the transfer is exclusive it has to be in writing. For example, if Alice composes music, she can give Bob an exclusive right to cover her composition for distribution in the United States and Carol the exclusive right to cover her composition for distribution in Europe. These are exclusive grants and have to be in writing.

Works Can Be Made Available Under Terms More Favorable Than Copyright Allows

The Creative Commons has developed a series of licenses that allows copyright holders to retain control over their works, but still make them available under terms more favorable than copyright allows.

Creative commons has recently introduced a new sampling license under which artists are allowed to use portions of other artists’ works in sampling. Various artists are expected to offer their work to be used for sampling through the creative commons website. More information about the creative commons license is available on their website at

Joint Ownership of a Copyrighted Work

When a group of musicians together create a composition or when a band creates an album, a joint work is created. A work is considered joint if it meets these conditions:

  • both or all the authors intend that their contributions be merged into a single work;

  • this intention exists at the time of creation of the work.

No written contract is necessary to create a joint work. Each author owns an undivided portion of the entire work. While each joint author may exploit the work without other joint authors’ permission, any profits must be shared with the other joint authors. No single author can grant exclusive rights without consent of the other authors.

For example, if Gertrude writes lyrics and Harry writes the music to a popular song, both of them own copyright in the lyrics and music. Harry can give permission for someone to reprint the lyrics even though Gertrude wrote them. Gertrude can give permission for a filmmaker to use only the song’s melody as soundtrack music even though Harry wrote the music.

It is likely, that in the absence of a contract to the contrary, performers will own copyright to sound recordings jointly with record companies.

Ownership of Copyright in Sound Recordings

US copyright law requires that, in order to be eligible for protection, a creative work be fixed in a tangible medium. Therefore, a performer cannot have a copyright in his performance. However, if the performer records the performance he may have copyright in the sound recording.

The creativity in the process of creating a sound recording involves not only the performance of the singer but also the input of the instrumentalists, musical director and engineers. Because so many people collaborate in the creation of a sound recording, the issue of ownership is difficult to resolve. This issue is mostly resolved by contracts. It is important for performers of music to remember that they are likely to have a copyright in the sound recording, unless they sign those rights away.

--From Public Knowledge

Music & Performing Arts Library

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This guide first created by MPAL graduate assistant Lindy Smith, Fall 2009. Later revamped by practicum student Madeline Hosanna, Spring 2012.