T. Scott Gilligan, the general counsel for MTNA, has written a great article on copyrights for the independent music teacher.  Included in the article is a discussion of what is legal to post on youtube, making arrangements for your students, page turning copies, etc.  I would encourage everyone to read this very informative article.

Here are a few highlights:

Isn’t any musical work composed prior to 1923 in the public domain?
Yes, but be careful. It is true that music and lyrics written by an American author and published prior to 1923 are in the public domain in the United States. Once a work is in the public domain, it can be used by everyone. Anything placed in the public domain is a complete abandonment of all rights. Therefore, if a work has been put in public domain because the copyright has expired or because the copyright holder abandons their rights and places the work in public domain, it is available for anyone to use in any way they wish. For example, the classical works of Bach and Beethoven are free for anyone to use.

It is important, however, to clearly understand what is in the public domain and what is not. While all of Beethoven’s musical works are in public domain, most of the sheet music of Beethoven’s works would not be in the public domain. That sheet music would, unless created prior to 1923, be protected by copyright. The same is true with sound recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies. The publisher of the sound recording would have copyright protection in it even though the underlying musical works that were performed were in the public domain.

To summarize this, remember that “editions” of Beethoven’s and many other composers works are under copyright, though the original music is not.  What is being protected is the editor and the pubisher’s editorial decisions, formatting, etc.

Another relevant question for today’s students and teachers:

May I legally post a video of a student’s recital on YouTube?
It will depend upon the music that is played on the video.  If the music is in the public domain and the student gives you permission to post the video, then there is no copyright infringement.  However, if the music being played is covered by a copyright, then the posting on YouTube without the copyright holder’s permission constitutes an infringement of the copyright holder’s synchronization and broadcasting rights.

With the tremendous growth of YouTube and the posting of numerous amateur videos containing commercial music, YouTube has already faced the infringement issue.  Several music publishers have written cease and desist letters to YouTube and to amateurs posting videos to YouTube.  Currently, if YouTube receives such a letter, it will remove the video upon the request of the copyright holder. 

With that in mind, you might ask this question:

Do I need a music license from ASCAP or BMI to hold a piano recital for my students?
One of the rights held by a copyright owner of a musical work is the exclusive right to perform the work in public. If music is performed in a public place or if music is transmitted to the public via radio, television, music on hold, or by the Internet, it may only be done with the permission of the copyright holder. That permission is typically obtained by purchasing a music license from the three primary music licensing organizations of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.

Please note that a music license from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC is only required for public performance of music. Music performed in a private residence, during an educational lesson in a private studio, or as part of a private recital involving a selected group of students does not constitute a public performance. Therefore, recitals by a music instructor’s students for a select group of family and friends would not constitute a public performance and would not require a music license.

Lest you think that all of these restrictions are unfair, please remember that without copyright protection, many composers would be unmotivated to make new music, especially pedagogical music.  It might be interesting for you to know who makes what in music publishing in order to appreciate the protection that is given to composers, without whom there would be no new music.

There are a number of other questions answered by the MTNA general counsel which are not so restrictive.  Please read the informative article for a full understanding of what you can and cannot copy without violating copyright.