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Music: Copyright and Plagiarism: Home


This guide was created by Hannah Carlson with the guidance of Sheridan Stormes in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Hannah's graduate independent study at Jordan College of the Arts.  IT is intended to serve as a general resource to help answer questions about music copyright, fair use, and plagiarism. It is not meant to offer legal advice. For general questions about copyright outside of music, visit Butler's Copyright LibGuide.


Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright is: "a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works."                                                     notepad

The three requirements for copyright:

  1. original work;
  2. be work of authorship;
  3. exist in a fixed, tangible medium

What does copyright protect?

Under 17 USCS Section 102 (Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute site link) the following is protected:

  • Literature
  • Music and lyrics
  • Drama
  • Pantomime and dance
  • Pictures, graphics, sculpture
  • Films
  • Sound Recordings
  • Architecture
  • Software

"In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."

Who owns the copyright?

  • The author
  • Those deriving rights through or from the author
    • This can include publishers, record labels, descendants of the author, etc.
  • If the work is done as a work for hire, the employer of the author is the copyright holder
  • If the work has more than one author, two or more authors can own copyright

-Derived from the Copyright Clearance Center's 2006 Copyright Education Series Foundations Workbook

How long does copyright last?

The United States has had several copyright codes in its history, so depending on when a work was created, it may or may not be protected by copyright. Check out the American Library Association's Digital Copyright Slider to see if what you want to use is in the public domain or covered by copyright.

© Digital Copyright Slider ©

What happens when copyright expires?

When the term of copyright expires (or an individual forfeits their copyrights using a CC0 license or something similar, see the Creative Commons tab for more information), a work is said to enter into the public domain


What is the Public Domain?

The public domain refers to works that are not copyright protected and can be used freely, without seeking permission. Works can pass into the public domain through various ways, so it is important to always check carefully to determine if a particular work is really in the public domain before assuming you may use it without permission. 

  • United States government documents (note: foreign documents may be protected)
  • Materials marked with Creative Commons licenses instead of a copyright symbol (note: different licenses affect sharing, use, and attribution)
  • When copyright has expired, materials move to the public domain
  • Factual and non-creative works like telephone books

Anyone may reproduce, redistribute, or adapt works in the public domain. Permission for use is no longer required.

Due to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known as the Sonny Bono Act), no copyrighted works will enter the public domain until 2019.

Additional Resources

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States 

Cornell University Library's chart illustrates when works pass into the public domain

Is it Protected by Copyright?

Digital slider to determine if and when works will pass into the public domain

What does the right of "first sale" mean?

The "first sale" doctrine says that a person who buys a legally produced copyrighted work may "sell or otherwise dispose" of the work as he or she sees fit, subject to some important exceptions (Section 109a). "First sale" gives you the right to loan a legally purchased book or CD to your friend. Historically libraries have heavily relied on the first sale doctrine to lend books and other items to their patrons.image of two books

The first sale clause was enacted during a time when most copyrighted works were produced in physical formats that made such works difficult to reproduce on a large scale. Many protected works including books are now produced digitally, however, copyright owners have lobbied Congress for new laws that some feel may undermine the "first sale" doctrine.

Additionally, many publishers (most notably music publishers) are now creating works to include technologies that interfere with the "first sale" doctrine. Software companies also attempt to circumvent the first sale doctrine by characterizing the consumer purchase as a license rather than a sale.

First sale issues are entangled with licensing and Digital Millennium Copyright Act issues. To learn more about The Digital Millennium Copyright Act please see the American Library Association's Introduction to the DMCA.

"Books" by Rocket000 is licensed under CC-BY

Music Library Association

The Legislation Committee of the Music Library Association (MLA) maintains a website designated specifically as a resource for anyone interested in issues of copyright as they apply to the fields of music and music librarianship.

Copyright FAQ - MLA's Copyright FAQ answers common questions about copyright basics.

Copyright Bibliography - A bibliography which includes other resources about copyright in general, and specific resources about music copyright.

LibGuide Authors

This LibGuide was created by Hannah Carlson as part of her graduate degree in music, supervised by Performing Arts Librarian Sheri Stormes,. Completed April 2019.

Performing Rights Societies


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