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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Music Copyright

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


Welcome to the Music & Performing Arts Library (MPAL) guide to music copyright! Use the tabs to the left to navigate resources regarding common terminology and concepts, how to legally use other people's work, how to protect your own work, and some more general information on this topic.

This guide and the links it includes are in no way meant to provide legal advice. Copyright laws are complicated and sometimes there is no clear right or wrong answer; this guide is only meant to lead you toward resources that can help you make responsible 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. We encourage you to check out her general Copyright Reference Guide for more information.

Why Is Copyright Important?

Copyright protects creators and prevents their works from being used without their permission. It allows creators to put their work out into the world for others to access, while also limiting the ways in which their work could potentially be exploited. This balance is designed to support the sharing of ideas in a way that benefits everyone involved, creators and users alike.

To have a better understanding of what copyright entails, see the tabs in the box below.

A Framework for Copyright

When discussing copyright and ownership, there are a few key points to consider:

  • The Creator is the Initial Owner

If you composed a song, you own the copyright of the score. If you recorded your song, you own the copyright of the sound recording. For sound recordings, ownership can belong to not just the performer, but also to others involved in the creation of the sound recording. However, the performer always has copyright of the sound recording unless assigned otherwise through a 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 Charles composes music, he can give Emma an exclusive right to cover his composition for distribution in the United States and give Allison the exclusive right to cover his composition for distribution in Europe. These are exclusive grants and have to be in writing. See the "Licensing Works" page for more information.

  • 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 while making them available under terms more favorable than copyright allows. See the "Licensing Works" page for more information.

  • Joint Ownership of a Copyrighted Work

When a group of musicians create a composition or sound recording together, a joint work is created. A work is considered joint if (1) both or all the authors intend that their contributions be merged into a single work, and (2) 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, and no single author can grant exclusive rights without consent of the other authors. It is likely, that in the absence of a contract to the contrary, performers will own copyright to sound recordings jointly with record companies.

For example, if Jose writes lyrics and Patricia writes the music to a popular song, both of them own copyright of the lyrics and the music. Patricia can give permission to reprint the lyrics even though Jose wrote them. Jose can give permission to a filmmaker to use the song in a soundtrack even though Patricia wrote the music.

  • Ownership of Copyright in Sound Recordings

United States copyright law requires that a creative work be fixed in a tangible medium in order to be eligible for copyright protection. Therefore, a performer cannot have a copyright of their performance, but they may have copyright of a recording of that performance.

Creating a sound recording typically involves not only one lead musician, but also other performers, a musical director, sound engineers, etc. Because so many people collaborate in the creation of a sound recording, ownership can be difficult to define. This issue is mostly resolved by contracts. It is important for musical performers to remember that they are likely to have a copyright in any sound recordings they are a part of (unless they sign those rights away.)

Much of the content included here comes from the following resources:

As a copyright holder, you control the exclusive rights to:

  • Copy your texts or recordings
  • Distribute copies or recordings or your work
  • Publicly display your literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works
  • Publicly perform your literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Make derivative works based upon your work
  • Publicly perform your sound recordings via digital audio transmission

In order to engage in any of these activities with a work that you do not own the copyright to, you must seek permission from the copyright owner. This usually involves acquiring (and often paying for) a license; see the "Licensing Works" page for more information.

A copyright exception allows you to use a copyrighted work without permission and without a license. Some exceptions to copyright include:

  • Face-to-Face Teaching

A work under copyright can be displayed or performed for face-to-face teaching activities as long as it's in a nonprofit educational institution or similar setting. However, the teacher or student must use a copy of said work that has been legally acquired. Not all educational uses of copyrighted works will fall under this exception and fair use is decided on a case-by-case basis.

  • Public Domain Materials

All materials published before 1929 are in the public domain as of 2024. (Note that if a particular work has entered the public domain, but a new annotated version of the has been published since then, then the annotated version may not fall into the public domain.) Each January 1, the literature, movies, music scores, and other works released 95 years earlier will enter the public domain. See the "Public Domain" tab on the "Common Terminology" page for more information.

  • Governmental Materials

Federal governmental materials are not protected by copyright laws and are, by definition, part of the public domain. However, if for example a contractor of the US Government creates a work, the rule does not apply here and so their work would be protected by copyright.

State governmental materials vary by state law. In other words, there is no simple provision in the Copyright Act (as there is for Federal Governmental materials) dealing with state government materials. However, the State Copyright Resource Center (maintained by the Office of Scholarly Communication at Harvard University) informs users of the copyright laws for each state's governmental materials.

  • Reproduction by Libraries and Archives

Libraries and archives can make limited copies of portions of copyrighted works for their patrons. However, these copyright exceptions do not apply to pictorial, graphic or sculptural work, or a motion picture or other audiovisual work other than an audiovisual work dealing with news.

  • Fair Use

Copyrighted works can be reproduced for criticism, comment, news reporting, education, or research. However, fair use determinations should be made on a case-by-case basis and a person can still be sued for copyright violations even if the use is almost certainly a fair one. The burden is on the user of the work to justify the use as a fair use. See the "Fair Use" tab on the "Common Terminology" page for more information.

For more information about copyright exceptions, see the following resources:

Additional Resources

The following books were published after the passage of the Music Modernization Act (2018) and provide up-to-date information about music copyright. Each item contains a link to its full record in the Library catalog.

"The Basics of Copyright" Video by Sara Benson