Fair(ish) Use

Music has been one of the topics that I have talked about a bit so far so I dug a little deeper to see what I could find when it comes to copyright laws and what music teachers can do when dealing with copying sheet music.

Liz actually did a great time line: A history of copyright law for musicians This was very informative about the history for copyright laws when it comes to music. Music was excluded from the copyright laws in 1790 and was not added until 1831. So it took 41 years for music to get the same laws as printed works. I found this interesting given that music has always been an important part of society for hundreds of years.

When it comes to education and teachers being able to copy sheet music I learned that there are a few points that teachers must follow when it comes to fair use. The link is a great resource for what teachers can and can’t do when copying sheep music and I re-posted the websites bullet points for guidelines.


Here are some bullet points you can use as general guidelines: 

  • Where a copy is allowed, you can only make one copy per student.
  • Excerpts of copyrighted works can be copied, as long as the excerpt isn’t more than 10% of a performable unit. So you can hand out copies of short passages, but not an entire movement. Whether it’s to provide some exercises, create a quiz, or any other sort of teaching material – you can only copy a snippet of the work.
  • You can make an emergency copy of purchased sheet music to continue with a performance. This has to be an emergency. It’s an hour before the curtain goes up and a cellist spilled his soda on his copy. That’s an emergency. A week before the performance and a violinist’s dog ate her copy – not an emergency. 

I will be honest I have played in many orchestras and I don’t think any followed these rules strictly. It is nice that one copy is allowed per student so at least that rule was followed but I am sure more than one was copied. But the 10% rule seems very tricky but I guess that would be only if you need to make more than one copy for each student. I don’t think I have ever had less than 10% copied or how that would work. When it comes to classical works, because of the age of the composers, the music can be copied with no problems. However since most middle school and high school orchestras and bands cannot play the original works they usually play arrangements, which would fall under the normal rules.

Working with music is actually much easier then I thought and the fair use laws allow teachers to make copies for working use. It is still very expensive to purchase a variety of music so a new music program might not have as many options but overtime could build up a library and/or make connections with other schools to barrow music.

Music has some similar aspects to fair use laws as photographs and I found connections with Sam’s post about the ability to copy the photos for the class as long as they cannot be sold. These two medians seem very similar because they are works of art and even though the artists should get credit when using them for educational purposes there seems to be some flexibility.

The four factors are covered when looking at coping music in school. The purpose is for education and giving the students the ability to mark up and loose the copy instead of the original. The nature of the work is to teach and grow the students musical abilities. The work is not being sold as well as the performances are not money making

One Comment

  1. Liz said:

    Thanks for your post, Maureen! Photocopying sheet music has always been a somewhat taboo topic and I’m glad you tackled it.

    July 13, 2019

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